Look again, however, and there is a magical quality that pulses much of Neilson's work, that seems to have leapt onto the stage straight from his head without any intellectual filter to restrain it. Neilson's most celebrated show to be seen in Scotland to date, The Wonderful World of Dissocia, originally produced by the Tron Theatre at the 2004 Edinburgh International Festival, in part created a Wonderland style fantasia to explore mental illness. The influence of Alice here was no accident, and Lewis Carroll's greatest creation has been with Neilson since he was a child growing up in Edinburgh.
“It's always stuck with me,” says Neilson. “I'm sure I read it, but the first memories I have of it are an old vinyl album, a cast recording on a Music For Pleasure album or something, and all the voices were slightly reverbed. I don't think it was a great production of it, but it sounds like it was recorded in this echo chamber, and sounded really weird. Everything's weird when you're a kid, but it was very haunting, with all the images and ideas, just the way that it was so anarchic and so sort of punk in its spirit.”
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was the creation of Lewis Carroll, the literary pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematician, Anglican deacon and a member of the Society for Psychical Research. Such apparent contradictions in Carroll's world-view have clearly influenced Alice in a way that dates back to the earliest stage versions. Neilson has also looked to the book's prevailing influence on popular culture.
“I think ours is a funnier version of Alice in Wonderland than you might usually get,” he says, “because it should be funny. If you think about the influence Alice in Wonderland had on Spike Milligan and Monty Python, they're very Carollian, so I've tried to bring a little bit of that element back. It will hopefully hit that sweet-spot where kids will enjoy it and adults will find it quite funny. Not because there's anything risqué or nudge-nudge in it, but just because we've gone more towards the Pythonesque element of it. It's almost what Alice in Wonderland would have been like if Monty Python had done it, but for kids.
“One of the reasons why I wanted to do this was because I worry a bit about the fact that a lot of kids now will know Alice primarily, not from the Disney animated version, which isn't that great, actually, but from Tim Burton, which grafted a quest narrative of a returning princess onto it, and that horrifies me. I'm all for free adaptation, and there have been lots of different versions of it, but to graft that sort of narrative onto it, that's just fundamentally the antithesis of what it's about.
“The amazing thing about Alice is that she doesn't want to go home, she's happy to wander round there. Alice is incredibly contemporary and a strong female character. She's not worried about mummy and daddy. She's brave, she's independent, she's curious. She's really great. We talk now about representation of women and role models, but Alice has been sitting there all this time. She can get a little bit lost sometimes, because she's surrounded by so much craziness, and we've been talking today about how she adapts to that world, or does she become part of that world as it begins to make more sense to her.
“When the first stage production was done in 1886, Lewis Carroll insisted they put on a subtitle of A Dream Play, and that's what it unashamedly is. The weird thing about it is, for all people try to impose a narrative on it where it has an anti narrative, or try to modernise it or bring out a theme in it or try to create parallels, it's actually incredibly contemporary in its structure. It's very much like an internet surfing session, where you wander from one site to the next, so you're the only thread to it.
“We may find that this is a more enduring structure than more narrative based structures, so in a funny way it makes more sense now than it ever did. Of course, it's always made some sense, because it moves like a dream, and we all understand dreams and because the internet and computers are modelled on a neurological model and it's a free-associative thing in a way.”
This applies to Neilson's approach to telling stories as much as it did to Carroll.
“Alice in Wonderland started its life as something that Carroll told to these girls in this boat,” says Neilson, “and was obviously told to them in instalments, and then he'd redraft it. It came from a particular place, and wasn't about sitting down at a typewriter. He was trying to entertain these young girls, and it was coming from a certain subconscious place, and I think he just let that get on the page. I don't think he tried to censor it.
“The whole set up I have when I make a show is specifically designed to circumvent that side of your brain that kicks in when you sit down to actually write something. To do that, I'm telling stories to the actors, I'm giving them this part and the next instalment, and I'm trying to find a way to allow my subconscious to work. I literally don't have the time to censor myself in that way much, or to really get on top of what it is I'm saying or doing. If you let it go through all these filters, and let the water run down through all those rocks and come out the bottom, what comes out of a lot of stuff can be quite considered. Looking back they can be quite exposing, because at the time you didn't quite understand them, but it's just where your brain takes you.”
While this new take on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland will remain a family show that will stay true to Carroll's original, in the making of it, Neilson stresses the importance of looking beyond what's already there.
“Despite the fact that it's funny, and the fact that it's a classic that kids should be exposed to in some way,” he says, “I think there's a lot to be learnt from the structure that Lewis Carroll consciously thought up. Because of what it was and how it was anti narrative, the fact that it's endured as a children's classic is a miracle. Alice can easily continue in your head, and could be a TV series. There's no end to Alice. She goes from one thing to another, and the only limits are your imagination.”
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, November 29-December 31.
The Herald, November 22nd 2016