Skip to main content

Anthony Neilson - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

At first glance, Anthony Neilson might not be the most obvious choice to write a new stage version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as this year's Christmas show at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. Neilson's early works, after all, were lumped in with the 1990s wave of so-called in-yer-face writers. As a theatre-maker who creates his work in the rehearsal room rather than at his desk, Neilson's way of working remains outwith the norm in text-based British theatre, particularly where it might be applied to a seasonal play for children.

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.
www.lyceum.org.uk

The Herald, November 22nd 2016


ends

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art School Dance Goes On Forever – Snapshots Of Masters Of The Multiverse

Intro – Snapshots – Deaf School

1

In 1980, the same year as the Manchester band, Magazine, released a 7
inch single called A Song From Under The Floorboards – a three verse
and chorus distillation of Dostoyevsky's novel, Notes From Underground
– an art school scandal occurred.

This scandal took place in Liverpool, and was based around a project
called the Furbelows, although it became better known in the Liverpool
Echo and other organs that reported it as the Woolly Nudes.

The Furbelows, or Woolly Nudes, were a group of artists who had come
out of Liverpool College of Art, who, dressed in grotesque woolly
costumes which featured knitted approximations of male and female
genitalia, made assorted public interventions around the city centre as
kind of living sculptures acting out assorted narratives.

The Furbelows project had been funded by what was then Merseyside Arts
Association, and, after the participants were arrested and taken to
court on obscenity charges after what…

Peter Brook – The Prisoner

Peter Brook is no stranger to Scotland, ever since the guru of European and world theatre first brought his nine-hour epic, The Mahabharata, to Glasgow in 1988. That was at the city’s old transport museum, which by 1990 had become Tramway, the still-functioning permanent venue that opened up Glasgow and Scotland as a major channel for international theatre in a way that had previously only been on offer at Edinburgh International Festival.
Brook and his Paris-based Theatre des Bouffes du Nord company’s relationship with Tramway saw him bring his productions of La Tragedie de Carmen, La Tempete, Pellease et Mellisande, The Man Who…, and Oh Les Beaux Jours – the French version of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days – to Glasgow.
Thirty years on from The Mahabharata, Brook comes to EIF with another piece of pan-global theatre as part of a residency by Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, which Brook has led since he decamped to Paris from London in the early 1970s. The current Edinburgh residency has alr…

Romeo And Juliet - Shakespeare's Globe Comes to Glasgow

Open-air Shakepeares are a summer-time perennial of the theatre calendar, attracting picnicking audiences as much as midges. More often than not, such romps through the grass are frothy, heritage industry affairs designed to be accompanied by strawberries and cream and not to be taken too seriously. Shakespeare’s Globe theatre company look set to change such perceptions when they open their outdoor tour of Romeo And Juliet in Glasgow next week as part of the West End festival.

For the two young actors taking the title roles of the doomed lovers, it will also be something of a homecoming. Richard Madden and Ellie Piercy both studied in Glasgow prior to turning professional. Indeed, Madden has yet to graduate from the acting course at RSAMD, and, as well as facing the pressures of playing such a meaty role in close proximity to the audience, will have the added anxiety of being assessed and graded by his tutors.

“This is the end of my third year,” says Madden following a Saturday mornin…