Review: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Royal Ballet

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Royal Ballet Royal Opera House Covent Garden HHHIII

Any list of literary works I consider unsuitable for translation into balletic terms would include much of Shakespeare, Proust’s Remembrance Of Things Past and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. Much of the pleasure – at least for adults – to be taken from that children’s classic is from the words, the topsy-turvy logic, the irrationality, the surreal non-sequiturs. Further, Alice’s adventures lack narrative coherence, they are simply a picaresque progress from one bizarre encounter to another.

And so it proves in Christopher Wheeldon’s latest production for the Royal Ballet, the first full-length commissioned work for 16 years.

To try to give the ballet some semblance of a journey, together with a love interest for the eponymous character, Wheeldon and his dramaturg, Nicholas Wright, have introduced a prologue set in Christ Church gardens where Dean Liddell, his wife and three daughters are attended by various guests including Carroll. Among the staff is a gardener’s boy, Jack, Alice’s friend.

When Alice descends into the earth, these characters take on the personas of the story: the dictatorial Mother becomes the the termagant Queen of Hearts, Jack is the Knave of Hearts, Carroll the White Rabbit and so on.

One after another, we identify a number of salient incidents: the corridor of locked doors; Alice seemingly growing larger and smaller; the lake of tears with various odd animals, the chaotic kitchen of the cottage; the Duchess with her pig-baby; the Mad Hatter’s tea-party. the Cheshire Cat assembled and disassembled by black-clad operatives as in Japanese bunraku. Scene follows scene at a frantic pace, only slowing for a sickly waltz (shades of Tchaikovsky’s Waltz Of The Flowers).

The second act presents the garden of the Queen of Hearts, the croquet game with flamingos and hedghogs, and a protracted finale in the court of the Queen.

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Wheeldon’s choreography is generally felicitous including two pleasant pas de deux for Alice and Jack. The dancers of the company seize what opportunities they have for display; Lauren Cuthbertson consistently sweet and graceful in the exhausting role of Alice, Sergei Polunin smooth and elegant as Jack.

Two most notable dancers were Steven McRae tap-dancing brilliantly as the Mad Hatter and Zenaida Yanowsky dominating proceedings as the murderous Queen of Hearts, including a hilarious spoof of the Rose Adagio from the Sleeping Beauty.

Casting the actor Simon Russell Beale as the Duchess smacks of gimmickry; the company has a superb roster of character dancers who would have made more of the character.

Joby Talbot’s eclectic score does all that the inconsequential scenario demands.

But the real success of the production belongs to Bob Crowley, whose elaborately inventive designs carry the evening. The prologue is set in 1862; the epilogue reveals Alice and Jack in a Dr Who-like time-warp being photographed by Carroll with a digital camera.

Derek Deane’s 1995 version of the story for English National Ballet was more direct and closer to the book; this frenetic, breathless production leaves me emotionally and cerebrally unengaged.