Curiouser and curiouser

Opera Holland Park's Alice in Wonderland. Photo: Alex Brenner
Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin is a journalist specialising in training and education.
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Not so long ago I had the pleasure, although I got pretty grubby sitting on the dusty ground, of seeing Opera Holland Park’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a new opera for families by Will Todd and Maggie Gottlieb.

It was sparkily entertaining, with Fflur Wyn as a delightful Alice and Robert Burt playing the Red Queen as a cross between the Mikado and Miss Trunchbull being especially memorable. My colleague George Hall reviewed it for The Stage.

Alice. There’s a lot of it about. In recent years we’ve seen Tim Burton’s 2010 film, Alice in Wonderland and Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland which had its first outing in 2011 and another at ROH this year. Back in 2001 there was a ‘straight’ staged version from the RSC and different accounts of it pop up all over the country every Christmas. Those two books Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871) have had a long innings and it shows no sign of waning.

So what is the enduring appeal? Personally, although I first read the books in childhood, neither has ever done a lot for me. I could see, even at age nine or ten that this was a grown-up being very clever and playing games with words and ideas, but then as now I preferred realism, “proper stories” and characters to empathise with. Have you ever noticed that there isn’t a single character in Alice that you might actually like? Millions think otherwise though and many people, usually adults, claim Lewis Carroll’s famous books as their all time favourites.

They lend themselves to adaptation for performance because they’re episodic. Whether it’s a play, opera, ballet, pantomime or whatever the structure makes the plot pretty manageable. Opera Holland Park, for example, used four separate areas of the Yucca lawn for different episodes and moved the Alice Band, conducted by Stuart Stratford, along with the audience from one set venue to the next and the piece ended literally where it began.

Another advantage, I suppose, is that you can take almost any Alice scene and adapt it as a short standalone. The Mad Hatter’s tea party is an old favourite, for example. Many schools, drama groups and the like have presented it. And because Carroll uses more dialogue than commentary to present his stories, it’s very straightforward material to adapt.

As with a lot of literature the quotable nuggets sometimes seem to me, at least, to be better than the Alice totality. I identify strongly, for example with the Red Queen and her six impossible things before breakfast – she just believed them. I often do them. “Jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today” is a good, wise line and the English teacher in me likes “Why, you might as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same as ‘I eat what I see.’ ”

On the whole, though – much as I love tradition, heritage and Victoriana in other contexts – I don’t warm to Alice much and am bemused by the number of performing arts adaptations which go on emerging, But each to her (or his) own. If they’re providing theatre and other opportunities for young participants and audiences and work for professionals, then that’s fine by me.