John Guilgud, Peter Sellars, Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, Michael Redgrave, Finlay Currie, Michael Gough, Wilfred Brambell, John Bird, Leo McKern…what a cast!
An unusual version of the Lewis Carrol book from Jonathan Miller, I gather there has been some disapproval in the media about the play’s intent to appeal to an adult audience, and it’s 21:05 start time certainly suggests they’re not aiming at children. The 14 year old actress who plays Alice, Anne-Marie Mallik, was quoted in the paper the other day as saying she didn’t see why children shouldn’t enjoy it, and to be honest the only thing that marks it out as ‘adult’ is what’s missing from it: there are no animal costumes or (if you’re a fan of the Disney version, which I’m not) songs.
The lack of recognisable costumed animal characters makes it harder to work out who they are supposed to be, and suggests that one is expected to be familiar with the original story before watching this. Instead the characters are portrayed as real Victorian people. The human characters such as the duchess, King and Queen, Mad Hatter etc are easily identifiable. Many of the scenes have been altered (for budget reasons presumably) or removed completely. There is no rabbit-hole…Alice follows the rabbit into a big old Manor House and down flights of stairs. The Mad Hatter’s tea party is bleak, with a thoroughly bored looking Alice sitting at the table with head propped on hand.
I thought Anne-Marie was marvellous in this. She’s been criticised by previewers as being “expressionless”, but that’s the whole point. The story is revealed at the end to have been a dream, and that’s how Miller asked her to play it, as if she’s walking through a dream.
My favourite scene is where the Frog Footman (John Bird) gives a two minute explanation of how he’s going to help Alice get through a locked door by doing absolutely nothing, but only when he’s got time to fit her in his busy schedule. “Is that any good to you? Nothing?”, he asks finally. Alice stands silent and impassive, listening to this long-winded rambling before exclaiming: “I think you’re absolutely idiotic.”
Whilst I think the stark black and white of this play is very effective and suits the tone of this version perfectly, with colour television arriving next year you’d think the BBC might have delayed this as it’d make a fantastic demo of the new colour system. Even without playing card Kings and Queens, and animal costumes the beautiful locations and Victorian costumes would surely look great in colour.
So while it’s not exactly a faithful retelling, the spirit of the original is there, the dreamlike atmosphere is very effective, and I enjoyed this much more than I expected to.