Friday, 1 April 2011

Alice in Wonderland - Royal Ballet @ ROH - Wednesday 2nd March 2011

Alice: Lauren Cuthbertson
Jack/Knave of Hearts: Segei Polunin
Lewis Carroll/White Rabbit: Edward Watson
Queen of Hearts: Zenaida Yanowsky
King of Hearts: Christopher Saunders
Magican/Mad Hatter: Steven Mcrae
Caterpillar: Eric Underwood
Duchess: Simon Russell Beale
March Hare: Ricardo Cervera
Dormouse: James Wilkie
Cook: Kristen McNally
Frog Footman: Kenta Kura
Fish Footman: Ludovic Ondiviela

Creative Team:
Choreography: Christopher Wheeldon
Music: Joby Talbot
Designs: Bob Crowley
Lighting: Natasha Kutz
Yes, I know that this is a very, very late review! Blame my constant disorganisedness (is that a legitimate word?); its been sitting patiently on my WP for a couple of weeks while I’ve been trying to locate the programme in the enormous piles of paper that constitute my life at the mome in order to complete the cast list and creative team sections.  I haven't put in a synopsis because I'm sure that being a cultured and literary crowd, my readers are all familiar with the story!

On the face of it, Alice is a strange book to want to turn into a ballet (or indeed a film). Its extremely wordy, has very little plot to speak of, and apart from the opening and until the final chapters, lacks a real narrative thread, consisting almost entirely of brief, unconnected scenes which really wouldn’t suffer much if you shuffled them like a pack of cards and dealt them out in a different order. There is a multiplicity of characters who make brief appearances, not usually to return, and a lot of the book’s Edwardian charm lies in its wordplay – puns, anagrams, cultural references etc. Its not really until Alice finally reaches the Queen of Heart’s garden that things start falling into their proper places. It also requires a lot of “effects” – falling down rabbit holes, growing and shrinking etc., which are necessary to the story. So it’s quite a challenge to put on stage effectively – particularly when you are denied the medium of speech.

Mostly, it was handled very well – although often at the expense of dance. The Japanese lady I was sitting next too agreed with me in the interval that she would like to see more actual ballet content (although as it turned out there was to be plenty of this in the second act). Most of the first act was really rather like an expensively-staged “straight” show rather than ballet; the ROH technical crew were probably running round backstage like Mad March Hares. Fortunately, they seemed to be coping very well, although I am not sure that the Royal Ballet purists would really approve of so many back projections. I found myself thinking at a couple of points “look, lets get the “wow” stuff over and can we have some dancing, please?”. Some sections seemed overlong – the caucas race is dreary even in the book and would have benefited from being cut by about ½ (no dodo, I notice), but I noticed only one major omission in terms of scene and that was the Mock Turtle and Gryphon scene (I think this was a shame – it would have been lovely to have seen “The Lobster Quadrille” on stage!).

Another problem is the lack of a love interest for Alice – in the book she’s meant to be 8 or 9 or so. I felt that having Jack (the Gardener’s Boy in the prologue) turn into the Knave of Hearts really rather forced this issue into the story against its grain. It seemed a logical progression eventually, but did take rather a lot of getting used to. What I felt was completely unnecessary was the “resolution” – Edwardian Jack and Alice both appeared to have been dreaming (so that the story was effectively a dream within a dream) – they were really modern teenagers dozing on a bench outside the house which had been Alice’s in the story and which was now obviously some kind of National Trust-esque property with a “Mad Hatter’s Tea Shoppe” attached. This added an extra layer to the story and, very possibly, an extra layer of confusion.

I do wonder whether the Royal Ballet are going to get sucked into the “celebrity” vortex – I couldn’t see why Simon Russell Beale had been drafted in to play the Duchess other than the RB capitalising on his current “national treasure” status. Granted, its not really a major dancing role – SRB looked to be having to hoof with all of his puff at several points - but I’m sure that the RB could have brought in one of their “back catalogue” to play the role – possibly Monica Mason herself (Mason was a member of the company who never really rose above playing tiny roles such as various Fairies and “Friends-of-The-Heroine”; she went into administration (badly phrased - she didn't cease trading, just turned her hand to sorting out paperwork!)and is now the RB’s Director. She’s retiring soon and maybe this would have been a “farewell” role for her?).

Anyway, Act II was dominated by Zenaida Yanowsky as the Queen of Hearts, complete with a total piss-take of classical ballet in a cod “Rose Adagio” solo with four suitors (aping Sleeping Beauty) which even began with an identical musical phrase as the original. To those “in the know” this was a clever side-swipe. I did, however, think that making the QoH funny was a major mistake – OK, it opened up the ballet for younger members of the audience but, in the book, she is a terrifying (mostly unseen) presence and a real figure of horror when she does eventually appear. To make her a figure or fun dilutes the character considerably – even the Disney film (which I loathe) retains her status as someone to be avoided at all costs, and someone to be constantly beware of when you can’t.

Anyway, full credit must go to Bob Crowley for the clever costume designs (even though there were unexplained inconsistencies. Alice and her two sisters were wearing fancy dress costumes at curtain up, then changed into Edwardian half-crinolines quickly afterwards for no obvious reason, and the Playing Card Gardeners were dressed in costumes which suggested medieval jesters, again for no obvious reasons). I loved the flamingo and hedgehog costumes, and thought it very clever that all the playing cards were wearing white body stockings with what appeared to be foam rubber “tutus” cut into hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades. Particular mention must go to the poor sods dressed as topiary cones all evening – surely the most thankless roles in the entire ballet. “I’ve got a part in Alice, mum” “Really dear? How wonderful! Your first big break! What are you playing?” “Err…. A topiary tree”. “Oh. Well, never mind. Perhaps you’ll get to be a Friend-of-the-Heroine next season”.  They did, however, get a well deserved solo bow right at the end - cue much hilarity from the audience.

Judging by the audience’s reaction, this looks like its going to be a big success for the Royal Ballet – it only ran for about 5 performances initially in order to “test the water” but I gather there are more performances scheduled for the autumn. It will probably seriously challenge The Nutcracker as something to take the grandchildren to over Christmas. It was a fun, jolly evening with lots of technical wizardry, but ultimately very low on actual ballet.

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These are my opinions. I am entitled to them. As you are to yours. If you are going to respond to my opinions, at least make your responses worthwile. Vitriol is pointless. And more importantly, won't get published - so you'll be shouting in the dark.