Last Friday I was invited to the staging of a new show at the National Theatre. The musical, wonder.land, is a contemporary re-imagining of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland brought into the digital age. Along with my friend, Wonderland-enthusiast Becca, we went behind the scenes prior to the show to talk to costume propmaker Reuben Hart, had a brief chat with co-creator and director Rufus Norris, and checked out the accompanying installation, enterwonder.land.
An immersive, digital experience, enterwonder.land, includes previews of costume and set designs, a musical Mad Hatter’s Tea Party table, and a place to design your own wonder.land avatar. It’s also free! My favourite part of the installation was inside a graffitied toilet set. Sitting on a toilet lid I was handed headphones and virtual reality goggles. The trippy film, called fabulous wonder.land, dropped you into the wonder.land landscape, a multi-coloured botanical space with a growing Cheshire Cat face looming overhead. I’ve previously been disappointed with virtual reality experiences (I’m looking at you Tate Modern’s Decision exhibition) but I was really impressed. I extended my arm when snow started falling overhead and even jumped when a floating plant started growing next to me. It was a great introduction to the show.
Celebrating 150 years since its publication, Lewis Carroll’s fantasy novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, continues to be hugely influential in popular culture, with constant re-imaginings and re-interpretations. From Disney’s innocent and whimsical 1951 animated film, to Jefferson Airplane’s drug-fuelled 1967 song White Rabbit, and Tim Burton’s 2010 attempt at ‘emotionally grounding’ the story, the pervasive appeal of Alice’s meandering tale continues to reflect the zeitgeist of the time.
In the original story protagonist Alice asks, ‘Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s a great puzzle’. For their re-telling wonder.land creators, Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini and Rufus Norris, appear to have embraced this question and run with it as the new production focusses on the concept of identity, online reinvention and growing-up in the 21st century. The decision to make Wonderland a digital space, Rufus Norris explained, was co-creator Damon Albarn’s idea. The Blur singer and lyricist pulled his smartphone out of his pocket, pointed at it and said, ‘Here’s your Wonderland’. Alice’s looking glass became the black mirror of her mobile screen.
A contemporary interpretation of the story, the show takes place in the present day. Aly, played by the very talented Lois Chimimba, is a teenage girl struggling with the separation of her parents, which has led to her moving into a new flat and starting a new school. Her mother Bianca, played by Golda Rosheuvel, is distracted with Aly’s baby brother, Charlie. Her father, Matt Hatton (get it?), played by Paul Hilton, is an unreliable cockney eccentric with a predilection for online gambling and wearing bowler hats. Dealing with bullies, both on social media and in school, and unable to talk to anyone in the real world Ally turns to the internet and finds obscure online game, wonder.land.
Aly is coaxed into the digital phantasmagoria of cyberspace by Hal Fowler’s character, a loud and flamboyant Harold Zidler-style narrator who also appears as the Cheshire Cat and a particularly brilliant Caterpillar. Here Aly is encouraged to create an avatar, which she decides to make the exact opposite of herself (mixed-race Aly choses to make her online presence the blonde-haired, blue-eyed and, significantly, white Alice, played by Carly Bawden), and meets a group of likeminded misfits – Dee, Dum, a 12-foot mouse, a superhero dodo, and a binned mock turtle – that hide similarly unhappy teenagers confessing their IRL problems.
Aly’s home town, created by set designer Rae Smith, is a pewter inner city concrete space, with design inspired by Shaun Tan’s somber graphic novels. In contrast, projection designer Lysander Ashton’s wonder.land is a brighly coloured world inspired by molecular and natural marine biology shapes. The harsh lines of Aly’s city are contrasted with the fluid shapes of Alice’s online space. Aly seeks refuge in her digital world where, forever out of reach, her avatar is beckoned on by the White Rabbit. Played by Joshua Lacey, the Deadmau5 meets Gareth Pugh creation is a mute yet charismatic character. Wearing a white skin-tight top with a ruff, paired with voluminous, jodhpur-style breeches, monochrome spectator-style brogues, and a rabbit head helmet with balloon-inspired ears, the White Rabbit is striking.
Katrina Lindsay’s clever costumes brilliantly draw upon John Tenniel’s iconic original drawings while acknowledging the digital reboot. For example, the avatar Alice, wearing a blue tutu pinafore, a white puff sleeved blouse and sky high heelless Mary Jane shoes, was inspired by Japanese Manga. The designs were photographed by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott in the December 2015 edition of American Vogue. The Grace Coddington directed editorial showed the wonder.land cast modelling alongside Kendall Jenner’s designer clad Alice.
One of the best costumes in the real world was for Aly’s antagonist, the Queen of Hearts, re-imagined as stern headmistress Ms Manxome. The word “manxome” is taken from Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem Jabberwocky, and is claimed to be synonymous to the words “fearsome” and “monstrous”. Appropriate, of course, for the power-crazed baddy played wonderfully by Anna Francolini. Not only does Ms Manxome confiscate Aly’s mobile phone, she also takes over her online profile, destroys Aly’s online friendships and turns Alice into a sword-wielding sociopath intent on taking over wonder.land.
Wearing a monochrome houndstooth-patterned power suit, with a New Look inspired nipped-in waist, oversized lapels and a knee length pencil skirt (think Alexander McQueen’s “Horn of Plenty” collection), Ms. Manxome was definitely my favourite character, with the best songs and greatest cabaret moments.
Originally staged at Palace Theatre during the Manchester Festival, critics have shown strong opinions for the new production. However Albarn, Buffini and Norris should be applauded for integrating experimental digital technology with classic theatre and creating a visually stunning, unique experience. It’s a striking and memorable performance that appears to have been largely misunderstood.
During a pre-show talk, Rufus Norris said that young adults were the intended audience not, as he put it, ‘the regular middle-class, middle-aged theatre goers like me’. It must be working because I’ve never seen such an age-diverse audience. Alongside people around my own age and the regular middle-class, middle-aged theatre goers, behind me sat three young teenagers enthusiastically analysing the set and stage design during the intermission, to their right a young girl sat wide-eyed with her grandparents, and to my right two young boys brought by their mother. During the intermission they both pulled out their mobile phones and continued to play a brightly coloured racing game together. My friend Becca nudged me and observed, ‘Looks like they’ve gone back to Wonderland’.
Thank you so much National Theatre for inviting us backstage and to the show, we had a really wonder.ful evening. If you want to disappear down the rabbit hole, wonder.land is playing at the National Theater at Southbank London until 30 April. It’s then travelling to the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris from June 2016. Tickets start from £15.
This post was written by a RWL Guest Blogger – Ellen McIntyre is the brains behind Culture Calendar, your one-stop-shop for listings of fashion related exhibitions, talks and conferences in London. Production photographs (top and bottom of post) by Brinkhoff Mögenburg. All other images by Ellen McIntyre.