Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Alice in Wonderland - Festival Theatre - Shaw Festival

"It's no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then."

by Mike Keenan

The cast of Alice in Wonderland. Photo by David Cooper
The cast of Alice in Wonderland. Photo by David Cooper

Fantastic! Incredible! Wonderful! Superlatives after viewing Peter Hinton's latest triumph at the Shaw Festival, Alice in Wonderland, his World Premiere featuring 19 original songs. And yes, quick, grab your grandchildren and take them to see Alice at the Festival Theatre, an experience that they will never forget, nor will you.

Alice in Wonderland Prior to my viewing, I played White Rabbit through my brain, the 1960's LSD cult song written by Grace Slick and performed with Jefferson Airplane. Remember its addictive lyrics? One pill makes you larger-And one pill makes you small-And the ones that mother gives you-Don't do anything at all-Go ask Alice-When she's ten feet tall...

Hinton's take is not about drugs; it's all about childhood, a precious commodity in children like Alice. It's about a world of unbridled imagination to be encouraged and cultivated by parents, and allowed to blossom, and yes, there were many young people at the theatre. (warning: the play runs a bit long for the youngest.)

Everyone is familiar with the story - on a summer day in 1862, ten-year old Alice and her two sisters were told a tale about a little girl, a white rabbit and a trip down a hole into an astonishing world, which became one of the best-selling books of all time.

Hinton provides lustre and spectacle to this imaginary tale, and it appears that his budget is immense, given the multitude of stunning and inventive costumes designed by William Schmuck. He covers the animal kingdom - white rabbit, dormouse, French mouse, frogs, dodo, eagle, eaglet, owl, duck, monkey, caterpillar, woodpecker, hedgehog, sardine, chipmunk, magpie, pigeon, March hare, Cheshire cat, mock turtle, gryphon, lobsters, and flamingoes; the world of playing cards particularly the King and Queen of hearts; and of course. the human world, outfitting Tara Rosling such that she is believable as Alice despite her age, as well as the women about her clothed in gorgeous gowns and men all in fine garb. This magical menagerie is an achievement for Schmuck who doesn't get much chance to experiment with typical Shavian time period costumes.

Moya O'Connell as the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. Photo by Emily Cooper Eo Sharpe has the herculean task of creating an appropriate set, no small task for a Wonderland, and her creations from the start are amazingly creative. She is aided by Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson with brilliant projections, integrated with care. Rosling's flying down the rabbit hole is realistic thanks to equipment by Foy allowing her to somersault along the way, and Kevin Lamotte's lighting is effective, again, difficult to pull off given the pyrotechnics occurring everywhere. John Lott's sound is equally tough to coordinate yet he matches character tone to size as ingesting potions and mushrooms causes rapid shifts in body size for Alice. Paul Sportelli's orchestra is right up there with the rest such that the cumulative effect from all of these creative support people is a joy to observe in comfortable Festival seats. One small complaint, the Cheshire cat sequence is a tad too long. Otherwise, Wow!

Most actors play two or three roles, and a few really enjoy the challenge. I liked Graeme Somerville's trio as Lewis Carroll, the Mad Hatter and finally the Mock Turtle, who at the end provides the essential message when he says that we all need humour in our lives to help us get by as we grow up in the world.

Moya O'Connell makes for a terrific eagle and a fantastic Queen of Hearts, in love with her tarts, winning at croquet and screaming, "Off with their heads!" Donna Belleville's Duchess is delightful in song, the human caterpillar formation and choreography by Denise Clarke first rate. Neil Barclay is an excellent triple threat as French mouse, frog footman and executioner.

In the end, Rosling deserves full credit for exhausting work with so much happening around her, the special effects, and flying through the air, while careful in her footwork and posture to portray a young Alice in convincing fashion. And, in this marvellous story where a girl grows and shrinks from 28 feet to 9 inches, cries a pool of tears that both she and animals must swim in, and a huge game of croquet is played with flamingo mallets and hedgehog balls, Shaw's proficient design team also gets top marks.

Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell in her last season at Shaw, calls this play "The best ride this summer, the ride down the rabbit hole." Congratulations to the intrepid and resourceful Peter Hinton who adapted this challenging work for the stage.

This show is recommended for ages 8+. Running time is approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes including one intermission. Alice plays at the Festival Theatre April 27 - October 16. See:

On Shaw's website, there are a plethora of Alice activities such as a Family Getaway at White Oaks Resort and Spa, Kids Tickets at $29, a Family Package saving up to 25%, a Mad Hatter Tea Party, 11:30am-1:30pm from April 30 to October 16 in the Drawing Room of the Prince of Wales hotel, an Alice Picnic Lunch, and an Alice Backstage Tour Jul 7, 14, 22, 28 & Aug 5, 12, 18, 26 | 11am.

Graeme Somerville as the Mad Hatter. Photo by David Cooper  Jay Turvey, Kelly Wong, Marcus Nance, Andrew Broderick, Jahlen Barnes and Jonathan Tan as the Caterpillar and Tara Rosling as Alice. Photo by Emily Cooper  Neil Barclay as the French Mouse. Photo by Emily Cooper  Tara Rosling as Alice Liddell and Jennifer Phipps as the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. Photo by David Cooper  The cast of Alice in Wonderland. Photo by David Cooper

Director's Notes by Peter Hinton
"Only Lewis Carroll has shown us the world upside-down as a child sees it, and has made us laugh as children laugh, irresponsibly. Down the groves of pure nonsense, consciously defiant, we whirl laughing, laughing at the things that will only bring sorrow and complication when we grow up." Virginia Woolf, 1939

Lewis Carroll was the pseudonym of the Rev Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. He was Mathematical Lecturer at Christ Church, Oxford and was admitted to deacon's orders in 1861. Although in some ways reclusive, he had a wide range of acquaintances in literary and theatrical circles and his two most famous books were inspired by his friendship with 10-year-old Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church.

Charles Dodgson has been described as one of the great Victorian eccentrics and lived a curious double life under two names. When Queen Victoria read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, she immediately asked for Lewis Carroll's next book. And so he sent the Queen a signed copy of An Elementary Treatise on Numbers and Their Determinants.

Lewis Carroll was without question one of the most influential writers and personalities of his age. His work in children's fiction revolutionized the art form and our culture's perception of literature for children. No doubt Shaw himself read Lewis Carroll as a child, being then 8 years old when Alice was first published. The "Alice" books went on to influence a generation of modernist playwrights, from J. B. Priestley to Virginia Woolf, and from Evelyn Waugh to Ann-Marie Macdonald. Simply, one cannot examine the beginnings of the modern world without including Lewis Carroll as a significant and defining voice.

Dodgson was an avid theatregoer, making the acquaintance of Ellen Terry (British stage actress, who in 1903 took over the management of the Imperial Theatre to focus on the plays of Bernard Shaw). Ellen Terry's enthusiasm for the "Alice" books led to the first stage adaptation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1886. Its natural and witty dialogue, colourful songs and simple episodic structure, its wide array of comic invention and characters and quest-like narrative has made it a natural and inspiring source.

The vitality of Alice in Wonderland and its appeal in adapting it for the stage at The Shaw has given us an opportunity to look at the world of our mandate through the eyes of a child. And that perspective shows us illuminating things about the perspectives of child life and the daunting process of growing up.

Lewis Carroll and the Theatre by David Day
Lewis Carroll's love of theatre was constant and life-long. He is known to have attended in excess of 400 plays. His diaries record his enthusiasms for productions that gave him great joy and others that moved him to tears. He saw stellar performances by Henry Irving, Ellen Tree, Charles Kean, Jenny Lind, Ellen and Kate Terry. He photographed - and became friends with - many of them; most memorably with the famous Terry theatre family. Of her long friendship with Carroll, an amused Ellen Terry wrote: "He was as fond of me as he could be of anyone over the age of 10." And curiously enough, over a century later, Kate Terry's grandson, the great Sir John Gielgud, was lauded for the best-ever audio recorded reading of Wonderland (1989), as well as for his portrayal of the Mock Turtle in a film version of the fairy tale. This enthusiasm for the theatre might have seemed natural and even typical for the time, however, for Carroll it was somewhat problematic. Lewis Carroll was, after all, a pseudonym for Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, an Oxford mathematician, logician, photographer and - more to the point - an Anglican clergyman.

The Anglican Church saw the theatre as a morally disreputable institution that should be considered entirely off-limits to a man of the cloth. The Reverend Dodgson took a different view and was very much an ecclesiastic champion of the theatre. His defense and rebuttal was that in one aspect at least, the theatre at its best was doing what the church was failing to do: engage and enlighten the young. Time and again he spoke and wrote about the church's insensitivity to children. He deplored how they were forced to endure hours of boredom in services that only alienated them from what he saw as the beauty and wonder of worship. That said, he was not always the most liberal of defenders. In an indignant protest, he summarily marched out of Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore upon hearing the "ghastly" refrain of "Damn me!" from the all-girl chorus. On other occasions, he contacted actors and theatre managers with offers to rewrite certain "morally offensive" passages in Shakespeare for them. And yet, for the most part, he remained steadfast in his support of the theatre, and became one of the leading campaigners for the establishment of national theatre school - and what became RADA: the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

What the Reverend Dodgson loved about the theatre was, first, its admirable ability to communicate spiritual and emotional realities and, second, its capacity "to convey a higher truth straight to the soul, bypassing the intellect." This is exactly what Lewis Carroll was attempting with the Alice stories. At the Shaw Festival this year, in Peter Hinton's production, we have an adaptation with a frame story that is very much in tune with the Carrollian scholar, Charlie Lovatt's observation: "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland began as a performance - a one man improvisational story-telling show given by the Oxford mathematics lecturer Charles Dodgson to three little girls named Alice, Lorina and Edith Liddell."

Wonderland - both in the book and in Hinton's play - begins "all in the golden afternoon" with an account of a real-life boating excursion that took place on July 4,1862, on the Isis, a branch of the river Thames, near Oxford. Two young college dons (Dodgson and Robinson Duckworth) in straw hats and boating suits rowed the three pretty little daughters of the dean of Christ Church upriver on a three-mile expedition from Folly Bridge to Godstow village. During the expedition, the girls begged Dodgson to tell them a story. And so began the tale of a girl named Alice who fell down a rabbit hole. When the party returned later that evening, Alice asked Dodgson to write down the tale so she might share it with others. "Thus grew the tale of Wonderland," Dodgson was later to recall. However, it actually grew slowly, and it was nearly three years before all "its quaint events were hammered out." And in this time the fairy tale was written, rewritten, revised and illustrated before Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was published in 1865.

In the century-and-a-half since, Alice has become an icon of popular culture world-wide. After Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll has become the world's most frequently quoted and most widely translated - author. The first theatrical adaptation in 1886 was by Henry Savile Clarke. It was entitled Alice in Wonderland: A Dream Play for Children and appeared in the Prince of Wales Theatre in London. The first adaptation on Broadway was in 1905, and over the years there have been a multitude of major theatrical productions with such celebrated Alices as: Meryl Streep and Kate Burton (with a cast that included her father, Richard Burton). In film we have Wonderland inhabitants who range from W.C. Fields and Cary Grant to Peter Sellers and Johnny Depp - with directors such as Joseph Papp, Woody Allen and Tim Burton. There have been animators as diverse as Walt Disney and American McGee; and musicians as inspired as Irving Berlin and Oscar Peterson. Then too, we have the many Alice ballets and operas; most recently, the National Ballet of Canada and the German National Opera.

All these professional productions - and the thousands of amateur dramatic productions worldwide - have not brought about a consensus on how Wonderland should be staged. It is a challenging and notoriously difficult book to satisfactorily adapt for any major professional theatre company. This is true for both the script and the actual staging: set design, costumes, music, and all the "machinery" required behind the scenes. Peter Hinton's adaptation is remarkable, both for its fidelity to the original text, and for its introduction of newly created dialogue that is entirely in keeping with Carroll's sensibilities and word play. The addition of operetta flourishes in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan are especially impressive.

The play also succeeds with its integration of aspects of the lives of real-life Victorians - specifically those of the Oxford circle of the Liddell family - with that of Wonderland's fantastic creatures and creations. The antithesis of Dickens' Oliver Twist, Alice is the embodiment of an idealized Victorian childhood that has nostalgically endured in the popular modern imagination.

The entire Shaw Festival production - like the book itself - is redolent of the Victorian age when all entertainment was live and local: from the dramas and operettas of the grand theatres and music halls down to amateur dramatic society halls and private drawing rooms with their tableaux, charades, recitations. It is also full of Carroll's clever parodies of popular games, dances, pageants, pantomimes, burlesques, nursery rhymes, poems and songs of the day. The real-life Charles Dodgson was an amateur magician, gadgeteer, pioneer photographer, inventor, and early adopter of all the technological fads and fancies of his day. He collected magic lanterns, a camera obscura, mechanical toys, peep show devices and early mechanical computers. And as so much of Wonderland is about illusion and transformation, he would have been fascinated by how effortlessly this production - like the storyteller's boat - drifts between real and imaginary worlds. How the sophisticated modern theatre technology in this adaptation has overcome the many shifts in scenes, scale and size. He would have delighted in witnessing illusions like Alice's fall and her sudden shifts in size, the metamorphosis of the Caterpillar and the slow vanishing act of the Cheshire Cat.

And so, with the Shaw Festival's production of Alice in Wonderland, we see how Lewis Carroll's love of the theatre has been reciprocated by the love of the theatre for the author's eternal dream child. For as difficult as Wonderland is to stage, there has been an enduring fascination with ways and means of recreating that world for the pleasure of theatre audiences. So, like the King of Hearts, we must "begin at the beginning!" Once again, we hope to discover something of the magic of that "golden afternoon" long ago - on that riverbank far away - where we may be caught up in that eternal moment, when Alice tumbled down the rabbit hole.

David day is the author of the best-selling Alice's Adventures In Wonderland Decoded (Doubleday). He has published over forty other books of poetry, ecology, history, fantasy, mythology and fiction. Translated in 20 languages, he has also written worldwide for magazines, newspapers, theatre and television.

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