Return to Wonderland
A new musical from Damon Albarn sees Alice reinvented as a teenager lost in a mind-bending virtual world
In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, a child tumbled down a rabbit hole into a strange world. In the new stage production Wonder.land, which showed at Manchester’s Palace Theatre in the summer and opens at the National Theatre in November, unhappy schoolgirl Aly escapes through her phone into a vibrant online world where she encounters the Cheshire Cat and much more. With music by Damon Albarn, direction by Rufus Norris and lyrics by acclaimed dramatist Moira Buffini, Wonder.land is making a splash on the theatre scene. Buffini tells us about working with Blur’s frontman, reinventing a classic and releasing her inner poet.
‘As soon as we had the idea that Wonderland is like the online world, the parallels seemed so obvious. It’s a place you get lost. Damon, Rufus and I have teenage kids and we’re very fearful about where they might be going and who they might be meeting. Alice meets some shady characters in Wonderland and dark, nasty things happen to her. But the great thing about Alice is that there’s something very self-possessed and confident about her – she knows how to behave in a situation where nothing makes sense and no one is giving a straight answer. I think in terms of what could happen to you online and who you might meet, it’s a really good parallel. You meet some wonderful people and amazing, creative things can happen – but there’s also an element of danger there.
Rufus called me one night and said, “Do you want to do Alice, with Damon Albarn?” How can you turn that down? So I reread the book and I thought, “It’s great, but it’s difficult, because it doesn’t have a plot.” A little girl falls asleep and has a dream in which she meets lots of strange people and then she wakes up. The genre of the musical demands a strong story, so what we’ve had to do is make that story up using modern interpretations of those characters.
It’s been completely joyful for me. I’ve never worked with music in this way before, but I’ve always written poetry and never shown it to anyone. Lyric writing has fed that part of me and I’ve found that I love it. I was honest with Damon that I’d never written lyrics before and he said, “Well, I’ve never written a musical before.” So it’s unchartered territory for us both and it’s been really exciting.
I wrote a couple of songs, and they came back into my dropbox with Damon Albarn singing them to his music. It was nothing like I’d imagined it would sound – it was 10 times better. Damon is a good collaborator. He loves working with different people, so he’s very generous in that way.
It’s the most visually stunning theatre production I’ve ever seen. It took my breath away when I first saw it. Aly’s mobile phone comes to life: we see it on screens and then it turns into a 3D world, and what start as little characters on a mobile phone become real, living characters. There’s fantastic costume and set design by Katrina Lindsay and Rae Smith, who are extraordinary practitioners at the top of their game. We learnt a lot from the production in Manchester and we’ve been busy finessing it for the National Theatre. It was really good in Manchester – now we want it to be amazing in London.’
Wonder.land runs from 23 November: nationaltheatre.org.uk
The Autumn unmissables
Make the most of this season’s dreary weather: ‘tis the season to stay indoors and sample the best of Britain’s stage productions, from rebooted fairytales to A-list dramas. These four shows taking place throughout the UK are a good place to start…
Sleeping Beauty, 27 November – 17 January; Bristol Old Vic, Bristol
The old fairytale gets a reboot by director Sally Cookson, who is known for magical family productions including 101 Dalmatians and Peter Pan. In this comic new show, it’s a prince who sleeps for 100 years and needs to be rescued.
Photograph 51, until 21 November; Noël Coward Theatre, London
Last time Nicole Kidman acted on the British stage it was for 1998’s acclaimed The Blue Room. Now she’s back in an impressive performance as Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who paved the way for the discovery of DNA.
The Winter’s Tale, 17 October – 16 January; Garrick Theatre, London
Rob Brydon and Derek Jacobi are among the big names performing with the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company over the next few months; first though, don’t miss the chance to see Dame Judi Dench in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.
Tipping the Velvet, 28 October – 14 November; Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh You might remember the BBC adaptation of this bestselling book by Sarah Waters, which follows a young woman’s sexual awakening in 19th-century London. This new stage production is directed by Olivier Award-winner Lyndsey Turner.