The Abbey Theatre, Dublin
Mar 30-May 12
My review of Alice in Funderland coming up just as soon as I provoke you by failing to distinguish between a cravat and a scarf ...
“I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit hole – and yet – and yet – it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”
- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Topical has been the discourse over the past year as to whether or not Irish theatre has entered into some crisis of representation – the slippery subject: Ireland itself.
This concern – spearheaded by Fintan O’Toole’s Power Plays – is that for an absence of some theatrical realism which can identify and present the realities of our recent period of economic collapse. There is no doubt that we have been in a state of accelerated change. As we lose grip of once constituting values such as sovereignty and, for some, nationalism and Catholicism, is it possible that we’ve fallen down our own proverbial rabbit hole and stumbled upon a curious new “sort of life”?
Furthermore, is it possible that Philip McMahon is our very own Lewis Carroll? Carroll declares his most famed book as a piece of literary nonsense, as cited in Mark O’Halloran’s insightful programme note. Where the book confounds and misfires in the signification of meaning, it celebrates the structural possibilities of language in forms such as a riddles, poems, and songs. With similar majesty McMahon demonstrates his mastery of the Dublin vernacular (with some denounced Corkian vowels thrown in as well) and the inventive means with which it has adopted popular culture (“There’s no ‘we’ in ‘Madonna’) and re-appropriated vocabulary. (*)
(*) A google search for “Bleerun” has done nothing for me. Anyone care to shed light?
Carroll’s Alice is also unable to succeed as a social entiety and often offends others – unable to realise that her cat may not be the best topic of conversation in the company of a mouse. When McMahon’s Alice wades through a Dublin street and tells a bypasser she’s lost, they respond: “Sure that’s a modern condition”. An anxiety stewed in fears of austerity and loneliness has inflicted the city, and not even the vindictive Queen of Hartstown is impervious to it.
Betrayed by a dead man who had anaphylaxis (“and every other slut in town”), Funderland Alice is reluctant to share her sister’s enthusiasm for her forthcoming wedding, never mind her Hen party excursion to Dublin. Like a fish out of water (or the river Lee at least), Alice finds herself lost in the heart of the Dublin night, separated from the others. She’s rescued by white
rabbit knight Warren, with whom she shares a whirlwind romance on the dance
floor. Warren is then summoned away by the Duchess, and Alice subsequently
begins a quest across the city to Hartstown to find him, encountering on her
path a Cheshire-grinning politician, a gay scenester nursing a Mock Turtle
tragedy, and an Afternoon Show duo with spoonfuls of madness, never mind the
tea to put it in.
Sarah Greene is completely charming as Alice, feisty and unsubtle as a cannonball but also disarming as she navigates the heroine’s identity crisis with sweet bluebird vocals and fantastic throw-downs on the dance floor. She is in excellent company. Delightfully grotesque as the Duchess, Ruth McGill is armed with a steely soprano, beautifully heard in her duet with Susannah de Wrixton in the unconventionally-titled: ‘Torsos in the Banal’. Ian Lloyd Anderson gives a memorable performance as a taxi-driver waving heavy nationalist allegiances, the tri-colours of which are let fly with a Damien Dempsey-type tenor. Wearing a crinoline dress with a radius so large it intimidates, Tony Flynn plays his Queen of Hartstown with a delicious slice of red velvet villainy. Paul Reid Starlight Expresses onto the stage as ‘The Gay’, revealing handsome vocals in a rooftop duet with Greene, ‘We’re All on the Edge’ – the most resonant song of the night, led by the solitary soft pace of a piano.
Unsurprisingly, Raymond Scannell’s (Mimic) compositions are clever and versatile. His score pulses urgently with an addictive Electropop rush of synths but also strips back the instrumentation to reveal intimate piano and cello arrangements.(**) If any Irish director were to tackle the musical genre it would be Wayne Jordan, who often polishes his productions with chic choreography. Designer Naomi Wilkinson creates a glamorous colourful world with her glossy set and costumes, enhanced by Sinéad McKenna’s sugary lighting and Jack Phelan’s subtle video design.
(**) Does anyone know if recordings of the songs will be available for purchase anytime in the future? I swear, I’m going again largely in part to absorb the music.
Alice in Funderland bears the unmistakable glamour of THISISPOPBABY – a fusion of nightclub culture, queer performance and social justice. Such aesthetic influences have their theoretical origins in destabilising previous dominant and violent models of gender and class relationships. McMahon takes leaps in his script that are too far, particularly in regards to the relationship between Alice and her sister, suggesting that perhaps a destabilisation of some cultural norm is the greater aim here.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is ultimately a story of adapting. As the heroine encounters the strange creatures in Wonderland, she betrays the lessons of vocabulary and mathematics that she had acquired in her own world. However, she learns new lessons. She learns which side of the mushroom will make her bigger and which side will make her smaller, and she reserves pieces from each side for when she needs them. She uncovers new rhymes and verses. Alice adapts somewhat of a strategy, and it’s appropriate for this reason that Carroll uses the chessboard conceit for the book and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass.
In Alice in Funderland, chess squares are lit to illuminate Alice’s path of progress. She also recites a rhyme given to her to distinguish between the north side of the city and the south side. We are shown a heroine which has to adapt to the conventions of a different world. As the musical hits its finale – a declaration to live life according to its potential and not to the burdens of an increasing culture of austerity – it appears that THISISPOPBABY are letting us in on a strategy of which to adapt to a changed Ireland:
“There is no fear, just nonsense”
What did everybody else think?