Sunday, January 21, 2018

Alice in Wonderland - No 3 (Sydney Festival)

Dubs Yunupingu as Alice
Alice in Wonderland adapted by Mary Anne Butler, from the story by Lewis Carroll.  Produced by Michael Sieders for Sydney Festival at Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, January 5 – 27, 2018.

Director – Cristabel Sved; Production Designer – Melanie Liertz; Composer and Sound Designer – Steve Toulmin; Lighting Designer – Matt Cox.

Dubs Yunupingu – Alice
Alex Packard – Harry / Mad Hatter / Rabbit
Ebony Vagulans – Caterpillar / Chelsie / Cheshire Cat
Drew Wilson – Quinn / Queen of Hearts /March Hare / Dormouse

Other roles: Bottle, Door, Chocolate Tree, Shoes (2), Mouse, Jack of Hearts, Three of Spades – shared between the performers.

Program includes the script published by Currency Press

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 19

The play begins before the action and ends, after the action, with distant crows, a little closer at hand honey-eaters – possibly the particular species I recall from north of Katherine and in the Kimberley – with the occasional close-up blow-fly: a soundscape that tells us we are in ancient Australia.  These sounds, plus the punt and catch of the high-flying AFL football between two young fellas, bring us into modern times – but what’s this girl who wants to take the mark?

Today’s Alice is an up-to-the-mark 14 year-old young modern woman.  She is offended, in fact oppressed by male dominance, specifically because she is not allowed to play in the under-15s – not even to train – simply because she is a girl.  “I don’t belong here,” she says.  “I don’t belong there.  I don’t seem to belong anywhere!”

By the end of the play, her experience of the magical world at the bottom of a children’s playground spiral slide – really consisting of her own imagination testing her thoughts and feelings in twisted forms derived from the real world – makes her ready to stand up for herself, face the taunts of the boys, and she will surely get to play her beloved AFL – the code.

In this production, the casting adds another layer: the two young women are clearly Indigenous, while the two young men are clearly not.

I’m sure there will be some purists who will see Mary Anne Butler’s updating of the oh-so-19th Century-English Alice as a travesty of literary tradition.  There may be others who think that theatre for children should not be so polemical – in this case absolutely feminist.  But why not? – when the conventions of male supremacy are still so obvious in too many families in the way wives and children are treated in the real world, where family violence is so often their experience.

Butler hasn’t taken up these thoughts as far as I have here: she concentrates on the positive development of Alice as a young woman finding her way towards a personal goal – not being willing to be left in her childhood state, accepting the strictures imposed by others, any more.

The code is a metaphor for the rules of the game which Alice needs to follow to achieve her goal – and it is the Caterpillar (firmly played by Ebony Vagulans) who teaches her, in the philosophical section about how you know who you are – which in this adaptation becomes about how you become what you want to be. 

The theatrical devices used in this production, with only four performers, were in their own right an education in drama for the young children watching, and maybe for many of the adults.  The rabbit, like the mouse and others, began as a small soft toy, turned very effectively into an apparently living puppet by the boys manipulating its head, legs, and giving it a voice.  As Alice grew smaller, the rabbit became the man/actor; while at another point Alice became giant-sized (that’s where the two very large shoes come in), while the full-size rabbit now seemed small in comparison.

This kind of playing around often became very funny, especially for the younger children – while at the same time sections of the script deliberately extended the vocabulary, even into words like ‘metaphor’ and ‘metamorphosis’ (which caterpillars naturally do, but which Alice must do for herself). 

It looked like little children’s drama, as if Alice was still 5 or 6; but the language took on a higher stage of learning, for the 14 year-old going on 15.

While watching, from my biassed drama-teacherish standpoint, I felt at times not sure if it all was working; but in the end the positive responses from the audience, ranging from about 4 to adult, and some comments I overheard in the foyer, indicated that people were very happy with the end-product.

So as the director, in her notes, explains: “We have set Alice’s world in a playground, and it is through her imagination that Wonderland with all its madcap characters and shifting shapes is conjured from the everyday people, discarded toys and playground equipment.  This imaginative capacity that is so important in the lives of children, and important to our creativity and enjoyment as adults, has been a guiding theme in this production.  Alice’s capacity for conjuring make-believe into a new reality for herself is there for all to take strength and purpose from.”

And all the actors’ skilful conjuring of their bodies, props, puppets and elements of the set made this Alice in Wonderland a playground full of surprises and wonder for young and old alike.

And so, to summarise this week of the Three Alices, it has been interesting to see that each adaptation and staging approach has been quite different. 

Of the three, personally I found the Ickle Pickle (No 2, on January 16th) the warmest and most engaging – perhaps because it was most suited to its setting in my local community.

The more conventional form of the commercially touring show (No 1, on January 14th) was in many ways the most satisfying in achieving a Lewis Carroll effect – but it might have been better to establish its audience at the 8 to 12 level, rather than promote it as fun for all ages, down to almost babes in arms who were there last Sunday.

Mary Anne Butler’s adaptation, (No 3 on Jan 19), was the version with the strongest dramatic throughline and sense of educational and political purpose – but, as in No 1, the use of mics distracted me at first and for the smaller Lennox Theatre I thought they were not really necessary. 

So, fit for local community purpose puts Ickle Pickle ahead; but Mary Anne Butler’s script and production puts Michael Sieders Presents ahead across the country; while Penny Farrow’s script and Rapidfire International and Boyd Productions win points for commercially touring beyond our borders a literally straight approach close to Lewis Carroll’s intentions.

And, indeed, Alice herself wins in all three – as she should.