Children's Books

Caterpillar truths and cake-eating delights



“OH, but I’m too big to get into this garden!” Alice (Gugu Dhlamini) faces the quandaries of being in a parallel universe. Photograph by Christiaan Kotze.

TAKING A HEAVILY-detailed Victorian foray into a world conditioned by what we would in today’s times call surreal and packing it into one hour for a predominantly contemporary childcentric audience, is one challenge. Arranging it for a cast of but four performers is quite another. In the production mounted by VR Theatrical of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, levels of narrative content are played with and juxtaposed in a manner which is wild and mad, endearing and exciting, but does it significantly add to the work’s readability?

It’s a similar question which needs to be addressed in a contemplation of works such as The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Symbolically focused around the complexities of a little boy from a different planet, the work is often (erroneously) assumed to be one suitable for child readers or audiences, and to be taken on face value.

But what of Alice? Is the rabbit hole and the sequence of continuously disarming events meaningful in the scheme of things which grapples for a crust of stability? If you bring your brand new baby theatre goer to see this show, one who has no prior knowledge of Alice and her antics, would it make sense? While Gugu Dhlamini does a sterling job in positioning the little 7-year-old 19th century lass in a 21st century framework, perhaps to appreciate the richness of Alice’s quandaries in this production, you need to have read the book. And arguably, you need to be more than a mere tot.

While you may bemoan the absence of the sleight of hand trick of the Duchess (Sandi Dlangalala) that turns a swaddling baby into a piglet, or the dismissive but hilarious cruelty of popping a Dormouse (Leti Ndubane) into a teapot filled with tea dregs, most of the other dream-like sequences of illogic and disparity in this great classic are handled with creative wisdom that has both credibility and the capability of holding the energy of the moment. Alice’s shifts in size and scale are dealt with in a way that is both accessible and dramatic, and do not resort to the often blander approach of technology or the oft-use device of animation.

But then, there is the hookah (read: vape) -smoking caterpillar (Danny Meaker) who ups the cool stakes of the work completely. Meaker embodies several other characters in Alice’s scary trip, including the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit whose attention to glove and fan protocol under the promised glare of the all powerful Queen of Hearts triggers the whole tale, and adds to the sense of jubilant mayhem in the work.

Under Néka da Costa’s directorial hand, Alice is a delight. It doesn’t feel laboured in its theatrical presence as it offers an hour’s interregnum of off-the-wall malarkey that sparkles with life. While there is one assault on the audience’s sensibilities by way of red lights to herald a change of scene, a decision which jars because it feels too easy, the work successfully balances the bizarre with whimsy in honour of the Victorian child who stole the limelight for (ostensibly) children’s literature for generations.

  • Alice in Wonderland is written by Lewis Carroll and adapted for stage and directed by Néka da Costa. It features designed by Amy-Sue Lithgow assisted by Robyn Evans (set) and Luke Draper (lighting) and is performed by Gugu Dhlamini, Sandi Dlangalala, Danny Meaker and Leti Ndubane at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino theatre complex in Fourways, Johannesburg, until 22 March 2020.

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