Alice In Wonderland: “it’s like an internet session”
As he adapts Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland for Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum this Christmas, playwright Anthony Neilson finds Carroll’s stories reminiscent of surfing the internet. By Mark Brown
When David Greig, the famous playwright who is now artistic director of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, was looking for a dramatist to adapt and direct Lewis Carroll’s much loved Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, he turned to Anthony Neilson. As the author of psychologically engaging and unquestionably adult dramas such as Penetrator, The Censor and Stitching, Neilson might be considered an unlikely candidate to bring Alice to the stage.
That, however, would be to reckon without the playwright’s most successful drama, The Wonderful World Of Dissocia. The play, which premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2004, might be characterised as Alice In Wonderland for adults.
Dissocia is, first-and-foremost, a terrifying and hilarious fantasia. Its surreal world of bizarre characters and random events turns out to be the workings of the mind of a young woman suffering from dissociative disorder.
Few people who have seen the play would deny its similarity to the highly imaginative alternative world of Carroll’s book. When I meet Neilson at the Lyceum during rehearsals of Alice, he is only too happy to acknowledge his debt to Carroll.
He read Alice In Wonderland as a child, he remembers. “It got into my head in a pretty fundamental way.
“I don’t remember reading it over and over again. But, for some reason, I felt connected to it.”
As a writer, Neilson is, he says, more interested in the “inner space” of human psychology than in events in the world outside. That, he explains, gives him an affinity with Carroll.
Alice In Wonderland is, says the playwright, “really just the transcript of something that was made up as he went along… It was that way of telling a story where your subconscious speaks quite freely… That’s what I try to do when I’m writing plays.”
In fact, observes the writer, Carroll’s approach to storytelling is, in some ways, more of our time than his own. “Quite unusually, Alice isn’t trying to get home, she has no plan, she’s just following her curiosity.
“It’s very much like an internet session. It’s a kind of narrative surfing, in a sense.”
Carroll understood, says Neilson, that “works that endure have two or three images in them that are indelible.” In that sense, he continues, Alice In Wonderland is comparable with the films of Stanley Kubrick.
Adapting Alice, he explains, begins with images. From the White Rabbit, to the Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter’s tea party and the little doors, through which the miniaturised Alice passes, the book throws up a series of visual icons, each of which demands its place in the show.
Fabulous though Carroll’s imagery is, I wonder if Neilson finds the visual world of the book a hindrance as well as a help in the creation of a stage play. “Yeah, it’s always a pain in the ass when you’ve got a character who goes from nine inches to nine feet tall.
“You have to try to work out a way of doing it that isn’t the same as the way people have done it thousands of times before. And you want to do it without utilising technology, which, in a way, is anti-magical.”
Neilson is promising a production that relies more on the charm of the story than on theatre technology. This Alice will combine the charm of Francis O’Connor’s set and costume designs and Nick Powell’s music with Neilson’s extraordinary theatrical imagination.
As to the question of how to make the show a success for all generations, not just the children in the audience, Neilson insists it’s simpler than it seems. “The key to a good children’s show is to tap the child in an adult. I don’t think it’s about entertaining children and adults on different levels.”
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland is at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh until December 31. For further information, visit: lyceum.org.uk
Mark Brown’s Christmas theatre highlights
Perth Concert Hall
There are glitzy, glamorous pantomimes in Scotland’s largest cities, but only Perth’s tartanised Dick McWhittington boasts Scotland’s leading panto dame Barrie Hunter. The fine actor returns to Perth’s Christmas stage as the no doubt dubiously feminine shopkeeper Senga McScruff.
Hansel & Gretel
Dec 6 to Jan 7
The Citz’s acclaimed artistic director Dominic Hill offers his own particular take on the Grimm Brothers’ great story of the siblings lost in the forest. A stylish, funny, sometimes dark family show is in prospect.
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
The Trav brings the much-loved horsey book to the stage. Aimed at children aged six and over (and their families), it is created by three of Scotland’s leading children’s theatre makers, performers Andy Manley and Andy Cannon, and designer by Shona Reppe.
How To Be A Christmas Tree
MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling
Nov 29 to Dec 24
An interactive show for babies and pre-school children, all about how to grow from a wee sapling into a great, big Christmas tree. Staged by Cumbernauld Theatre Company and Fish And Game theatre group, I’m sure everything will turn out pine.
Hansel & Gretel
Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Another rendering of the Brothers Grimm tale. Scottish Ballet’s delicious version takes up Christmas residence in Edinburgh before going on tour. Christopher Hampson’s show, which premiered in 2013, strikes a fabulous balance between tradition and modernity.
Touring Jan 5 to Feb 10: scottishballet.co.uk
These features were originally published in the Sunday Herald on November 27, 2016
© Mark Brown