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A collaborative take on Alice in Wonderland

A collaborative take on Alice in Wonderland

A collaborative take on Alice in Wonderland cover photo on Stagedoor
Lyn Gardner chats to Poltergeist Theatre's Jack Bradfield about collectively bringing a classic story into the present day

Theatre talks a great deal about being a collaborative process, but many shows begin with a script and maybe a director and the rest of the creative team are brought on much later in the process. By that time the vision is pretty well set, and it is up to the creative team to serve it.

But what happens when an entire creative team is brought together much earlier? Can a costume designer create character rather than just reflect a character already written? Or might a lighting designer have a significant impact on narrative? Who gets to decide? And what happens to the production when the traditional job descriptions within the rehearsal room are dissolved?

You can find out later this week at Brixton House—the newish South London venue that arose phoenix-like from the old Oval House in Kennington—where Poltergeist Theatre is co-producing a new version of Alice in Wonderland which is set within Brixton tube station. On the Victoria Line platform Alice, just started in Year Seven, and her harassed mum, just starting a new job, are having a blazing row.

The creative team in rehearsals for Alice in Wonderland. Credit Ali Wright.

“We’ve had the creative team together for over two years, and that’s unusual and it’s been so fruitful,” says Jack Bradfield, artistic director of the ever-thoughtful Poltergeist which has previously produced the gorgeous Lights Over Tesco Car Park, a show about what we believe including recordings of those who say they have had close encounters with aliens from outer space, and Art Heist, exploring what makes a piece of art valuable. “The whole story, shape and tone of Alice has come from us working together and it means that no element— from the sound, the text to the design— can be separated from each other. The lyricist talks directly to the lighting designer so it all mashes together in a really lovely way. ”

Someone engaged as an illustrator and to do poster design might be seen as peripheral to the creative process, but in this instance Israel Kujore, an illustrator whose sources are comics, Japanese animation and gaming has been as central to the making as anyone else. He had never read the book before starting on the project and therefore was working unhindered by preconceived notions of who the characters are and how they look.

The Cheshire Cat springs from Kujore’s visual imagination. “We were working on ideas of the Cheshire Cat as being a bit of a nuisance and I was thinking about the modern version of that, perhaps an internet troll or someone who creates viruses.” The result is a nerdy hacker in a hoodie wreaking havoc and a very long way from John Tenniel’s original drawings for Lewis Carroll’s absurdist classic. There are other delightful touches: Tweedledum and Tweedledee are city types on their way to the square mile.

Attempts to update Alice in Wonderland have often come a bit of a cropper. Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini and Rufus Norris’ at the NT is but one of many misfires in recent years. Perhaps poor Alice really can’t escape the Victorian constraints of white pinafores and blonde heroines?

The creative team in rehearsals for Alice in Wonderland. Credit Ali Wright.

Bradfield doesn’t agree. “I think it is tricky but when you are working from a book it offers you a lot, but you are also always looking for the gaps that are there that you can fill in the most exciting way.” In the case of Alice, one of the difficulties of the story is that on stage it can feel episodic like a series of sketches. It lacks narrative momentum. Or as Bradfield puts it, “there is no sense of accumulation.”

Bradfield and the team hope they have solved that by bringing their own 21st century visual language to the story and adding emotional ballast through the relationship of this latter-day Alice and her mum, who also pops up as a tube version of the Red Queen.

“This mother and daughter have gone through a tough time, and they are trying to make sense of their lives in a world that feels as if it has stopped making sense to them,” explains Bradfield. “Alice is a child of lockdown, she has been through the Covid pandemic in years five and six and now she’s starting a new school. I think we all experienced that in lockdown, that feeling of living in a world where the rules kept changing that no longer makes sense to us. What we want to do is to ground the story emotionally and tell the story of Alice and her mum and refract that through Wonderland.”

Cover artwork by Guy J Sanders and Israel Kujore from Poltergeist Theatre's Alice in Wonderland at Brixton House from 1st through 31st December 2022. Tickets can be found here.

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Lyn Gardner

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