!Public Service Announcement!
This post contains instances of pride…
…because I’m about to have a little boast.
I got a place at University of Chicago!!!!!! (Ok, so that many exclamation marks probably qualifies as a medium-sized boast. My bad – false advertising.)
The only diptera in the soup is… I am waaaaaay out of practice. The place is for a Master’s in Humanities with an option in Creative Writing, and the last time I set fingers to keys in an academic setting was close on two years ago, while the only creative writing I do is this somewhat sporadic blog. So, in the name of training, I have taken the phrase “write what you know” as my own personal motto. Voila, here, for your perusing pleasure, shall I rhapsodise, proselytise and otherwise soliloquise… about my life.
And, right now, about my week of Alice in Wonderland.
I feel a (now, not so) secret glee when it comes to Alice in Wonderland for the following shameful reason: throughout my three years at Oxford, Alice in Wonderland was the only set text I actually read every syllable of. ALL others were either skimmed, selectively thumbed, listened to on audiobook or used to prop up my terminally wonky desk. Thinking about Alice, I feel smug. I KNOW her. Biblically.
So imagine the surge of excitement I felt at the news of new interpretations!
Enter Alice 1.
Peter and Alice. John Logan’s intense play sees the boy who inspired Peter Pan meeting the girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland… and indulging in a heavy session of good old fashioned English complaining. The play is 90 interval-free minutes of philosophical exploration of the nature of a child’s innocence: its power to both enrapture and enslave the adult mind, its potency in inspiration, its darker side since it will and does one day desert us. I am not one for mincing my words. The play is genius.
The script is wound tight, moving from plainly spoken to abstracted and back again as the grey-matter of everyday life collides with party-coloured fantasy. The sets are a gorgeous blend of the two central stories, dodos, pirates, the infamous crocodile, mad hatter, tinkerbell, the whole crew present and correct in toy-town colours. The costumes, when fictional Peter and Alice take to the stage, are beautifully simple renderings instantly recognisable and evocative as hell. The two authors also appear and though very different characters they nonetheless share a deep sadness in their confounded fantasies, welched by age and responsibility. They are pennies in the fountain, blown out birthday candles and the evening star: the very symbols of wishes, whose grey hairs attest to those prayers remailing unfulfilled. They are bewitchingly human.
Before the lights are even fully down there is truth coalescing on the stage. Something fragile in which we have all at some point believed is dancing in the shadows of the follow-spot, just beyond the reach of our grownup eyes. Flight of fancy, imagination, innocence, callowness and guilelessness are past, but gathered in our velvet seats in the warm darkness we arrive – deftly marshalled by the show – at one simple, excruciating truth. That dream we waved goodbye to: it was the only worthwhile thing we could have done. All else is compromise. In relinquishing our child-fisted grip we lost what the Hatter would have called our “muchness.” We could have been more, burned brighter, capered further, shed more light as we passed. We could have been muchier. We were not. And now we are adults, and adulthood is compromise, damp, grey compromise. Adulthood eschews the rabbit-hole and the open nursery window.
Peter tells us as much, his glimpse of Neverland pursued him through life, seeded his being with dissatisfaction: an all-too-accute sense of what might have been, what was in halcyon days, what is gone and can never be real again. He is uneasy in his own skin, in his own life. We are told at the end that he threw himself under a train.
Alice is far more practical. Yes, the golden hew of yester-year has faded to brass but what has been was nonetheless a gift, a fanciful gift to generations of children. She may well have grown boring, as perhaps we must, and died closer to lonely than cheery but she basically tells Peter to get a grip, and good on her I say! All is not lost. We can still dream as much as we like and if in doubt a hookah-smoking caterpillar will always be there for our delectation. What could be more fun than that?!
But I am wrong.
Apparently I did not drink the Koolaid. The critics have told me so in no uncertain terms. Quentin Letts has no praise for the play. Although he does his best to make calling Ben Wishaw “so irredeemably moist, that he could do with sponging” sound like a compliment, he ultimately leaps to the conclusion that the show is “not exactly a ray of hope.” The independent calls it a dud. The Standard uses the word “flabby” (Ouch!). The Guardian’s Michael Billington denounces what he sees as an “elegant literary conceit offering surprisingly few revelations.” The FT throws in the word “paedophilic” like a shock-and-awe firecracker, all flash-bang and no actual point.
While Lett’s abuses the play for lacking lightheartedness, it’s the FT’s Ian Shuttleworth who represents to me the true dreariness of some criticism, unable to resist his urge to drag everything through the muck. Although he does a u-turn on previously being “unimpressed” with Logan’s work, namely his last play Red, he ruins it with this: “I am delighted and chastened and get to eat my words.” Eugh. That’s just self congratulation. It sounds like he thinks his own words a rare delicacy only to be enjoyed at special occasions such as Christmas, or the demise of someone’s literary reputation. Remember the last time someone said to you “I’m sorry, we were both wrong,” and you had to practically bite your tongue off not to yell with all your might that that was not an apology! That’s how Mr Shuttleworth leaves me feeling. Thank god for the Telegraph’s “beautiful and searching” or I’d have run mad.
I’m aware, having just abused Shuttleworth for similar crimes against content, that my point is floundering in my emotions, but I refuse to believe art has to be chirpy to be worth it. When did everyone else get this memo?! The sadness of the play was practically the whole reason I came away glowing and buzzing from head to foot. It reminded me that, even when sad, I am not without magic. Despite a few people in my life who’ve devoted far too much of their energy to making me believe my feelings are small and silly, Peter and Alice had me burning to look those people in the eye, smile and whisper “I believe in faeries.” Then poke my tongue out at them.
Too much? Maybe a little too much. But COME ON PEOPLE. Life is so much fun. I mean talking flowers! Painting the roses red! An alligator that ticks! You know how I know this? Because Alice Liddell Hargreaves is absolutely right in the play: she talks about the joy she sees in people when they remember Alice in Wonderland. Even though the story’s true beginnings are shrouded in sadness, the demise of innocence, the renunciation of fancy and the temporal happiness of childhood… you still get things like this springing from it:
As red and yellow confetti rained down on us and anthropomorphic flowers cavorted down the aisles I was overcome with visions of a plump, plummy Artistic Director flicking his aging ballerina’s hand and proclaiming “Pfft! Fourth wall!? What fourth wall?” But before I get all am-dram-English-grad smug on you I should actually ask if the fourth wall even exists in ballet, or if it’s just something ye olde English boffins dreamed up to annoy Brecht?
This is Alice, ballet style. It was totally, life-alteringly, eye-bogglingly fabulous! (In fact, picture the scene. My touch-activated bedside lamp has seasonal affective disorder and is not responding to my caresses, plus I’m blinder than a glaucoma-stricken mole without my contact lenses so I am hunched over with my nose to my keyboard in the pitch dark to write this… oh and it’s 1am. THAT is how much I want to tell you about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at the Royal Opera House.)
I love audiences. Coughing, farting, whispering, snoring, fidgeting and often hailing from Planet Offensively Tall. The woman in front of me, for example, wasn’t just doing the usual audience bob-and-weave to get a better view; there were full-throttle tactical maneuvers going on. I could have super-glued her to her seat with pleasure. And the little girl behind me, who overheard me enthusing with my friend about how this production had included the pepper-fogged kitchen scene complete with cleaver-wielding cook, a pig rammed halfway into a meat grinder, the convulsively sneezing mother (played by a man) and baby, and lashings of blood. Tarantino would be so proud. Said earwigging little girl immediately turned to Daddy and said “was the butcher scene in the book, Daddy, because it isn’t in any of the movies I’ve seen.” Shoot me. Shoot me on the spot because culture is dead. An eight year old in kitten heels has heralded the end of my belief in the education system.
But even she couldn’t dampen my enjoyment of the evening. The show was gorgeous. Festooned with microjokes – the caterpillar’s offering to Alice when she asks to be her old size again is, rather unapologetically… shrooms. (Do kids say “shrooms” anymore? Or am I just adorably retro?) – Christopher Wheeldon imbues the story with endless humour. His gurning Red Queen is bust-a-gut funny, not least when she gets a little hot under the collar over the Caterpillar. The Mad Hatter, the lone tapster in a sea of ballet shoes, dancing like… well, a madman… on top of a cupcake, was always going to bring a smile. Yet these touches are not just for the chucks. They are intricate and intelligent flourishes, with definitive purpose. Wheeldon doesn’t bring Alice back to the rivebank and the picnic with her sisters, but rather plays on a love connection he has added between Alice and the tart-burgling Knave of Hearts. He brings her full circle back to our own time where she’s fallen asleep on a bench over the eponymous book, while her boyfriend listens to reggae at her feet. This modernising flick gives the choreographer the chance to bring on a pseudo-stranger. His little pink wire-rimmed glasses clue the audience in: we’ve come to know the White Rabbit wears them. When all others have left the stage, when Alice has forgotten her copy of the book and the White Rabbit has picked it up to return it, only to succumb to curiosity and flip it open… then, against the backdrop of a cheeky, bouncing score, Wheeldon gives the man a little rabbit-like scratch of the leg. A proffered secret handshake, between artist and audience, that the story has not ended, that in fact it never ends but simply begins anew each time the book is opened. And the hand is taken. The message is received, the audience emits a warm shimmer of laughter at the scratch. “Yes” we say, “we see him. We understand. We will open the book again. One day.”
Although that would have made such a juicy ending… I just can’t shut up. I want to tell you about my favourite moment in the show. Despite being a pedant on occasion, I don’t mind that it’s not a moment that exists in the book. Well, not really, not in the way it’s done here. It’s the scene where Alice testifies, or tries to, at the trial of the Knave of Hearts. All others have condemned him. He has testified (of course, in a ballet this means he danced) in his own defense. To no avail. All seems lost. Enter the very symbol of innocence and truth: Alice. She dances of her love for the Knave of Hearts. He, pulled like a magnet by her beauty and courage, joins her, and together they dance the familiar dance of love. If you’ve been to the ballet before you’ll have seen it. Odette and her prince. Clara and the Nutcracker. But this one was more potent than I was prepared for. (Disclaimer: I am a hopeless romantic. Feel free to go to the ballet and not feel any of what I felt.) The key was in the way the rest of the dancers (do you call them a cast in ballet? God, I’m such a pleb) are slowly overcome by the lovers, won round, until even the Knave’s most strident accusers have fallen in love with the young couple. Then, the moment, the cast waits en pointe, the audience on the edge of their seats. Has the Red Queen fallen under their spell?
No. Of course not, she’s a villain. Get with the programme, Audience. The scene dissolves into a gidly slapstick of misdirection while the motley collection of characters, as smitten with the lovers as are we, trick and trip the queen until Alice and the Knave escape. Yet, even as I giggled at their mad-cap antics, the spell of the two lovers stayed with me. For a moment I had been perfectly, completely enthralled.
(Just, f.y.i, I got all that… without any dialog. And people say there’s no such thing as magic!?)
For the love of everything good and lighthearted in life GOANDSEETHISSHOW! It will restore your faith in human talent, creativity, in love, in joy and passion and childish giddiness. Everything that is vital. Go. NOW.