>alice in wonderland by el teatro negro de praga de jiri srnec

>reviewed by jeremy samuel

>date:18 aug 2002
>time: 8 pm
>venue: kallang theatre
>rating: **1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


Ah, that classic of children's literature, Lewis Carroll's ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Along with its companion volume, 'Through the Looking Glass', it follows Alice as she -in the words of the programme - "wanders in her dream, playfully and with an English sense of humour, but with a philosophical attitude towards the labyrinth of situations in which she finds herself." The Black Light Theatre's stage version of the story plays the imagination card, paring away most of the narrative and focussing on the surreal, almost psychedelic events Alice finds herself going through.

The Black Light Theatre of Prague, founded in 1961 by Jiri Srnec - also the writer and director of ALICE - has a gimmick that's hard to beat. The 'black cabinet' technique involves performers in black manipulating a series of highly coloured props across the stage, making them appear to move of their own volition. The effect is magical, with flowers blooming in front of our eyes and then breaking apart to become a cloud of butterflies. It is like Disney's 'Fantasia' - the live-action movie. It is a salutary reminder of the magic of theatre - we are too jaded to feel moved by even the most intricate computer-generated movie effects, but still have the capacity to be thrilled by something happening on stage, immediately before us.

>>'the ALICE stories have been chopped to pieces to provide a series of images which, beguiling as they are, do not make up for the lack of a storyline'

The visual imagery is a treat, both creatively imagined and seamlessly executed. The caterpillar's pipe wafts huge, lazy smoke rings that do a dance in the air above his head. Alice's dramatic growth after the "Eat Me" cake is excellently done, with her legs suddenly lengthening ten feet and just as quickly shrinking back. And the transformation of the baby to a pig is as surprising as it is laugh-out-loud funny. The children in the audience love this sort of thing, but even the adults will find themselves being taken in by the simple illusion of props floating about on their own.

The show runs into trouble once the novelty of this wears off. After you've stopped marvelling (how do they do it?), you start to notice that an awful lot of the scenes have nothing to do with the source texts, or indeed with anything else that has gone before. There are scenes of flying sweets, and a coloured ball that bounces across the stage. At one point huge carrots dance around for no reason (except perhaps crazy logic. You know, white rabbit - carrots). As they say in the programme, "everything has its cause, even if this cause is unusual or crazy, but it happens like this in real life". Only, though, if you're doing a lot of drugs.

It is just as well Carroll's books are out of copyright, because if I were his estate I would be on the phone right now working out how to sue a theatre company. The ALICE stories, endlessly inventive and witty, have been chopped to pieces to provide a series of images - not even scenes or vignettes; there is simply no narrative - which, beguiling as they are, do not make up for the lack of a storyline. There is no dialogue of any kind, just movement, a cross between mime and dance. There is a song, the lyrics to which run in their entirety, "Alice, Alice, in Won-derr-land".

The last coherent image in the show takes place ten minutes in, when Alice falls asleep. After that we see her running through a series of landscapes, meeting a variety of characters (who are never introduced), and being chased, inexplicably, by a pair of menacing red birds who pop up from time to time. The white rabbit accompanies her through all this, pulling props out of a hole in his giant pocket watch. He eventually dispatches the red birds, killing them - and I am not making this up - with a giant pair of scissors. A cat also joins them halfway through the action. Not the Cheshire cat, you understand, who was actually in the books; just a random cat.

Anyone unfamiliar with the ALICE books will have trouble understanding what is happening at any point. But knowing them quite well doesn't really help either - you recognise the caterpillar, the dodo, Humpty Dumpty when they appear, but they never do anything. Each new scene is just an excuse for more visual trickery, which stops being enthralling roughly a third of the way into the show. There is no plot, no character development, no nothing. The background music is unbearably screechy and repetitive. Even the dancing is mediocre at best. All this show has going for it is one trick, the 'black cabinet', and while it is a very spectacular trick indeed, you do wish they would do more with it.