November 18, 1989

Once More Unto the Rabbit Hole


Murray Bramwell talks to director Angela Chaplin and writer Gillian Rubenstein about Magpie Theatre’s current project at Theatre 62 – an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland

Since it first appeared on July 4th 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has become not only a classic work but an integral part of the modern consciousness. Translated into fifty languages and published in countless editions it has also been adapted for both stage and screen. Most people know something about Alice and her close encounters with the Mad Hatter and his Tea Party , the White Rabbit, the Queen of Hearts and the Mock Turtle. Using the nom de plume Lewis Carroll, the Rev Charles Luttwidge Dodgson, a socially inept, stammering young Oxford don, produced a book which is now so familiar that it is hard to imagine a world that was ever without it.

Like J.M.Barrie, author of Peter Pan, it was Dodgson’s particular genius that he could capture moments and sensations of childhood experience that most forget in adult life. In fact, both writers, existed uncomfortably in their grown-up worlds each prefering the company of “child-friends”. It is only in the context of the Victorian cult of childhood that Dodgson’s preoccupation with entertaining, photographing and corresponding with little girls can be regarded as entirely innocent. In our own times his idolatrous regard for nine year old Alice Liddell, the Alice in his books, Adventures in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass, would almost certainly be regarded as unwholesome and aberrant.

But while the life of Dodgson might now attract scrutiny, the work of Lewis Carroll continues to be admired by mathematicians, historians, logicians, psychologists and envious writers. Virginia Woolf wrote in 1939 : “the two Alices are not books for children; they are the only books in which we become children. President Wilson, Queen Victoria, the Time leader writer, the late Lord Salisbury- it does not matter how old, how important, how insignificant you are , you become a child again. To become a child is to be very literal; to find everything so strange that nothing is surprising; to be heartless, to be ruthless, yet to be so passionate that a snub or a shadow drapes the world in gloom. It is so to be Alice in Wonderland.”

Magpie, the young people’s wing of the State Theatre Company, returns to Wonderland this weekend in a new production adapted by Adelaide author Gillian Rubinstein. Dodgson himself was delighted with the idea of stage versions of his books, enthusiastically attending performances by Phoebe Carlo in 1886 and Isa Bowman in 1888. Possibly he would not have been so impressed- given that he was very fussy about his illustrators and he could have found none better than his own collaborator John Tenniel- with what Walt Disney and his thirteen writers did to his creation in 1951.

“I’ve tried to be very faithful to the book,” Gillian Rubinstein explains, “because I know Alice so well and its always been a part of my life. I’ve read it over and over and had read quite a lot of background even before I started adapting it. I felt in a way that it belonged to me. I think that gave me a certain amount of confidence about dealing with it.”

“One thing that struck me when I reread it was that much of the humour is even more impressive when you know something of the Victorian background so I wanted to give a little bit of an idea of the Victorian family life that the story springs from. We have two scenes in the play which open the first and second acts which are set in Alice Liddell’s family and introduce some of the puzzles and games and allusions which would otherwise be lost.”

Director Angela Chaplin is pleased with the shape these scenes provide. “We have been able to follow each member of the family and who they become. I think Gillian has made some fantastic choices about who does what doubling. Everytime time there is a pair of characters like Tweedledee and Tweedledum or the Mad Hatter and March Hare they are played by the same people- Peter Wood as Dodgson and Francis Greenslade as his friend Robinson Duckworth. Richard Margetson plays Professor Liddell, Alice’s father who also takes on the single imposing roles such as the Caterpillar and Humpty Dumpty. We found that having established the family there is a very strong inner logic to whom each should play all the way through.”
“Our designer, Kathryn Sproul has worked on the idea of unwrapping the Victorian era. You know how they used to wrap table legs and all those things that shouldn’t be seen. So basically people get more and more undressed until at the end with the Pack of cards they are all in their long johns.”

This production is no period piece though. The music by Andree Greenwell draws on a range of contemporary styles as does the humour itself. “When I was writing it I was amazed at how much like Monty Python it sounded, ” Gillian noted, “I think Lewis Carroll had an incredible influence on all that British humour.”

“We had to be careful not to parody Python and end up sounding like John Cleese,” Angela adds, “But sometimes we just have to say -don’t worry, it’s Python, do it. You realise many people think that this is contemporary humour from the seventies but it belongs to the 1870’s.”

“What we’ve tried to do is follow the humour through the parody rather than be wacky. We haven’t tried to impose zany humour on it. If it’s dark then then it’s dark but the blackness is also terribly funny – and so much depends on the way Alice is played. There is no way Caroline Mignone would do a cute, polite, sweet Alice. She plays Alice as rampantly curious, she’s fascinated, intrepid, logical.. and like the original Alice she’s not blonde but dark-haired.”

Angela Chaplin exudes enthusiasm for the Magpie Alice in Wonderland -“It’s been much more difficult than I thought it would be but it’s been amazing fun and that’s a great way to end the year.

“Magpie’s Adventures in Wonderland” The Advertiser, November 18, 1989, p.12.

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