Photos – Clare Hawley
This delightfully charming production takes on Lewis Carroll’s infinitely mutable classic and freely adapts it into a new form that is cannily aimed towards young children, particularly little girls who might identify with the titular heroine. It is a fresh look at the material, clearly designed to be empowering for girls, although certainly by extension carries an anti-bullying message of accepting and celebrating uniqueness and individuality for all children. This is particularly in the face of those who seek to pin them down into any preconceived notions of restrictive behaviours and old-fashioned gender roles. Needless to say, anti-progressives who rankle at the idea of open-minded education for children will probably not be thrilled by this portrayal of an indigenous Alice fighting to find the courage to shed her feminine clothing and play AFL… but good riddance to them.
Indeed, adaptor Mary Anne Butler and director Cristabel Sved have created something rather special, taking Carroll’s children’s classic and giving a contemporary spin to much of its familiar imagery and characters, to express their chosen contemporised theme. The play begins with a framing device whereby Alice, dressed uncomfortably in a long skirt, a snug jacket and girly shoes, attempts to indulge her passion for footy but struggles against the restrictiveness of her unsuitable clothing and the jeers of the boys who will not accept her participation. Dejected, her hair ribbon is suddenly stolen by a passing White Rabbit and, fearing parental chiding over its loss, she gives chase, thus beginning her trip down the rabbit-hole to Wonderland.
The central sustained metaphor throughout the show which Butler and Sved latch onto is Alice’s many iconic changes in size, after consuming the various magical “eat me” and “drink me” potions, cookies and mushrooms. These metamorphoses serve as an externalised exploration of her own discomfort and feelings of change as she seeks to reconcile the juxtaposition between her socially imposed prim and proper femininity, and her inclination towards intrinsically tomboyish sporty adventuring.
Alice’s quest for identity through these changes in size is wonderfully represented through imaginative child-logic stagecraft, when she shrinks via the puppeteering of adorable little stuffed-doll effigies of Alice and other “small” characters, like the mouse in the flood of tears sequence. When Alice grows larger the effect is achieved via simple manipulations of her clothes to look too small at first, and then when she becomes truly titanic through the creative use of long collapsible ducting tubes in the same pattern as her stockings, attached to oversized sneakers, thus creating the appearance of giant stilt-like legs.
As Alice variously shrinks and grows, her girlish clothes which she worries she will be scolded for losing become ill-fitting enough that the White Rabbit can easily snatch them. She and the rabbit seem to be on parallel paths, with Alice discovering she is much more comfortable in shorts and sneakers, while the Rabbit delights in feeling pretty wearing the girl’s progressively pilfered outer clothing. Just as Alice gains the attire and resolve to live out her dream of playing AFL when she returns from Wonderland, she also stops fretting over parental disapproval and forgives the thefts of clothing. She reasons that they look better on the White Rabbit anyway, who in the meantime decides to pursue a dream of becoming a ballerina.
This dual gender subversion is hardly going to pass unnoticed by adults. However, lest anyone think this challenging of assigned stereotypes is any kind of radical exhortation of gender reassignment, it should be noted that this is all couched in very simplistic, child-level thinking. Alice never expresses any wish to not be female, merely that the strictures of feminine clothing and others’ imposed expectations of her gentility are incompatible with her own desire to play footy.
The White Rabbit’s kleptomaniacal crossdressing seems a bit more overt in terms of defying norms, but the Rabbit’s specified gender isn’t emphasised so much as is the notion of becoming the first rabbit ballerina, as opposed to a conventionally human one. Again, virulent conservatives probably won’t have to strain very hard to identify something they might find objectionable here, but for the rest of us this is a delightful production that imparts some valuable lessons to the preschool set about being true to oneself and not allowing others to stifle their identity.
Sved’s direction combines with Melanie Liertz’s colourful production design to create a captivating world out of often simple yet magical stagecraft, around a set that resembles a modern playground jungle-gym with a corkscrew slippery-dip, allowing the action to take place on multiple levels. The actors portraying the unkind children from the normal world who won’t let Alice join in their AFL game double as the variably helpful and malevolent characters in Wonderland, represented through soft-toy puppets, floating illuminated parts of the Cheshire Cat, repurposed props, or partial costumes. For the skittish White Rabbit, self-centered Mad Hatter and tyrannically gender-conforming (yet cross-cast) Queen of Hearts, these roles are signified by striking headgear made from geometric sculptures, which seem to evoke both papercraft masks and the blocky graphics of the popular videogame Minecraft.
The cast of four is vibrant and fun, with Alex Packard, Ebony Vagulans, and Drew Wilson each playing a multitude of roles with verve and infectious energy, making their whimsical but frequently antagonistic characters just mean enough to intimidate, but with a joyous theatricality that should not render them scary to even the smallest children. In the title role is Dubs Yunupingu, an absolutely magnetic actress, whose fresh-faced enthusiasm and considerable personal magnetism is perfect for children’s theatre, and she effortlessly embodies not only Butler’s particular take on the character of Alice, but projects a great role model of kindness and self-acceptance for young girls as well.
This is a terrific new production of Alice in Wonderland with a local and contemporary twist, and while aimed at young kids, it is brought to life with such creative staging and suffused with a warm-hearted positivity that adults are sure to enjoy too.
Michael Sieders Presents/2018 Sydney Festival presents
Alice in Wonderland
adapted by Mary Anne Butler from the book by Lewis Carroll
Director Christabel Sved
Venue: Riverside Theatres | Parramatta NSW
Dates: 5 – 27 January 2018
Tickets: from $36