Alice sounds a haunting refrain


Co-created by Robert Wilson, Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan and Paul Schmidt

Based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass 

Directed by Clayton Jevne, Theatre Inconnu

Through Dec. 20

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Even before the Canadian premiere of Alice at Theatre Inconnu begins, artist Robert Randall’s illustrations of a dissolute man, a bright-eyed girl and a rabbit, projected onto a screen, undulate gently as if deep underwater.

It is an early clue about the psychological depth of this surreal musical exploration of the relationship between a Victorian-era author and the real-life child who was his muse.

In 1856, Charles Dodgson, a mathematician and Anglican deacon, befriended the family of Henry Liddell and became a particular friend of Liddell’s middle daughter, Alice. Dodgson, an amateur photographer, posed Alice in various make-believe postures, including that of a beggar-maid in torn clothing. At one point, Dodgson wrote in his diary: “I wish I could free her of all her clothes.”

In 1863, when Alice was 11 and Dodgson had just completed a draft of what he would later publish as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, Mrs. Liddell ended the relationship between her daughter and Dodgson and ordered Alice to destroy his letters. Dodgson continued to write, if not to Alice, than at least about his Alice, and later published Through the Looking Glass.

When Americans Robert Wilson, Tom Waits and Paul Schmidt began to conjure Alice in 1990, they hit on the idea of melding the Alice stories with the real-life relationship between Dodgson and Alice. Wilson, a director known for visual conception, was struck by the image of a photographer with a black cloth over his head. The image also resonated with Schmidt, who wrote the libretto. What must it have been like, he wondered, for a child to be photographed in an era when the process entailed long periods of holding perfectly still, stared at by the camera’s eye? It became his opening scene.

It fell to singer-songwriter Waits to write music and lyrics for the play. In collaboration with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, he created a haunting atmosphere as a counterpoint to the text in which sorrow and reverie, touched by obsession and insanity, rise like a mist around the characters. Theatre Inconnu musical director Donna Williams and the group, The Party on High Street, used an exotic variety of musical instruments, including a horned instrument known as a Stroh violin and the eerie theremin, to achieve an emotionally fragile mood.

Psycho-sexual allusions are never far from the surface. In the Dodgson character’s anguished opening number, “There’s Only Alice,” Graham Roebuck, in the guise of the White Rabbit, sings: “And so a secret kiss brings madness with the bliss.” Alice, played by Melissa Blank, morphs in age, but maintains a strong determination throughout to grow into her own identity. She is not untouched by Dodgson’s obsessive attention, however. In Alice’s last song, as an adult reflecting on her childhood relationship, she signals her continuing attachment when she sings: “You haven’t looked at me that way in years, but I’m still here.”

Hints of pedophilia run through the Alice stories as well. Both acts end with trial scenes in which the Black Queen demands the beheading of, first Alice, then Dodgson, because of inappropriate letters sent and received. This is a crowded tale, populated by seven supporting actors, several of whom play as many as five roles apiece. Imaginative costuming by Shayna Ward, as well as talented acting, effectively disguise this redundancy of roles. Together, the cast and production team bring to life characters from the Alice stories with an edge you’ve never seen in them before.

Despite the condemnation in the scenes derived from the mad worlds created in Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories, this play as a whole is not censorious of pedophilia, but rather treats both characters involved in the relationship with sympathy and respect. In a 1993 BBC documentary, the argument was made that the intent is, rather, to see the relationship as “something complex and moving and beautiful, if troubled.” In Theatre Inconnu’s program, director Clayton Jevne advances his hope that the current production will both entertain and haunt the audience “in a way that reminds us that we are all ‘haunted’ by those who have touched our psyches.”

Jevne’s hope is realized. Alice is a play that risks much and touches deeply.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover.