Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, returning to the Royal Opera House this month for a third time, is a spectacle of Diaghilevian proportions. From the minute the curtain rises to the sounds of Joby Talbot’s sweeping, yet crystalline score, Lewis Carroll’s tale of white rabbits and playing cards is brought to life in a way that is fresh and innovative- a true feat after over a century of endless adaptations.
The sets are jaw dropping and the use of projectors brings a new fantasy to the stage, with the audience enthralled as smoke clouds form questions above Alice’s head, an axe swings down over the stage, and glitter rains down from the ceiling of the Opera House.
Talbot’s score creates an awareness of time from the very beginning of the show, with percussion playing on a tick-tock effect that isn’t obvious or cheesy but actually gets under the audience’s skin. Wheeldon’s choreography has an angular quality and so at times the figures surrounding Alice would take on the manner of clock hands ticking and jolting. Beatriz Stix-Brunell puts in a great performance, projecting Alice’s girlhood naïveté whilst simultaneously performing with utter control and precision. She is an essential foil to Wheeldon’s comic, modern choreography, which references many styles and techniques from Bollywood, to mime, to tap and jazz. This eclecticism is win-win because whilst feeling modern and innovative, it manages to capture the original Victorian quirkiness of Carroll’s work. The Victorian belief in the romance of the exotic manifests itself in a Maharaja Caterpillar, whilst the standards and class politics of that period allow the addition of a new narrative; that of Alice and her star-crossed young love affair with Jack, the Gardener’s Son.
This narrative, conceived by Nicholas Wright, elevates the entire story. Suddenly, Carroll’s iconic imagery takes on a new life; the King and Queen of Hearts and the playing cards become metaphors for young love and it’s fickle, chance nature. The growing and shrinking and tears of Alice when she first falls down the Rabbit Hole appear as a metaphor for her emotional maturation, as does the famous image of her outgrowing the house. Just to be able to think about the story on this level, to find double meanings and hidden themes, is so refreshing for the viewer. It leads to some of the most tender and transfixing moments of the show, pas de deux between Alice and Jack, who becomes her Knave of Hearts, and Jack’s expulsion from the family home in the first act. Love is made the centre of the work, and the climax of the action involves various combinations of the characters locking lips whilst the Court of Hearts comes crashing down around them. This comes just after the Queen of Hearts dances her ‘Tart Adage’ a send-up of the Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty that has the audience, both new to the ballet and old, in uproar.
All in all, this work is a completely triumph. The sets and production are stunning, the music magical and, above all, the dance captures the dynamics and characters that have fuelled the love of Carroll’s original for so long. For those hours at the Opera House, the audience really did fall into Wonderland- and none of us wanted to leave.