AN EXTRAORDINARY ALICE IN THE DARK HEART OF WAR
In a cellar, sheltering from bombs in 1915, a wispily grey, middle-aged Alice Liddell roams through an Edwardian clutter of old chests, dusty books, hampers, toys, warped tennis-rackets and a broken grandmother clock. Somewhere in France, in khaki and Sam Browne, her son Alan is in another dank dark space, a trench; yet he is with her too as an imagination or a phantom, going through the old tales that Lewis Carroll wrote for his mother years before. Alan – and indeed another of her boys – was killed in that war.
This hour is one of the strangest commemorations of WW1 so far, and though it is touring conventional theatres in short runs till autumn, it launched itself at the weekend in the dank,bricky subway tunnel under the Victoria and Albert Museum. The two actor-puppeteers – Mandy Travis and Jack Parker – use the junk around them both to recreate portions of the Alice stories and to enhance the pervading sense of wartime unease, loving fear and personal danger. Creator-director Poppy Burton-Morgan of Metta Theatre has taken nearly every word from the original texts, and it is uncanny, sometimes disturbing, how many parallels she has found, and enhanced with a wild and troubling soundscape and song by Filipe Gomes.
The Mad Hatter’s illogic is the mental disturbance of a man under fire, hardly holding it together; the Lobster Quadrille becomes the remorseless military drill, “Off with his head!” shrieked by a menacing German Red Queen made of an old lamp. And when Alan finds himself painting the roses red, his hands are suddenly red with blood. Sometimes the dislocated nonsense-conversations are Beckettian, yet all the more troubling because so familiar from our more innocent readings.
Puppetry, of course, is always both magical and a little disturbing, as if there could be resistant, defiant lives in the most passive objects around us. Here it is is brilliantly designed by Yvonne Stone: when old Alice pulls out her son’s baby-smock from an old trunk, the half-present Alan with sudden skill makes it into the White Rabbit. A toppling pile of old books with broken reading-glasses on top (antennae!) suddenly comes to life in his hands to become the Caterpillar, wavering and defiant, complte with pipe; when Alice shrinks to surrender her adult identity to a doll and then grows, the doll’s neck is an old telescope, an exact grotesque parallel to the Tenniel drawing. The Cheshire cat, quite brilliantly, is an old fur, a carnival mask and its mouth and grin a snapping evening handbag. As for the Mock Turtle – a gas mask and helmet -its unhappiness, its helpless “would not, could not, would not could not” is almost shattering as Alan abandons hope; Alice’s crooning of “Beautiful soup” is a lullaby to its distress, and his.
It is recommended for 8 years and over; I’d pitch it a bit older, with some careful preparation about WW1 as well as a knowledge of Carroll. But it’s a very grown-up piece, and as an adult I am glad I saw it. And this brief hour will stay with me for a long time, the sadness and strangeness echoing.
TOURING: to 25 Oct:
TR Bury St Edmunds tonight and tomorrow: theatreroyal.org
further details http://www.mettatheatre.co.uk