Review – Wonder.land – National Theater

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Last night’s performance of Wonder.land (“Wonder Dot Land”) was a first for me in many ways: an hour into the performance, a disturbance upstairs proceeded to get louder and louder until the lights started coming up and a black dressed stage manager type announced to the performers, “Ladies, stop the show.” And the Red Queen and Alice paused, said about one further word, then walked off the set. An audience member had taken ill, and in the ten minutes of nervous mumbling and staring that followed as he (or she) was attended to by a first aider and then taken out of the auditorium, we had some time to discuss what had been going on in this “Alice for the online generation.”

Spectacle: yes, there’d been a fair bit of it, including some exquisite costumes (wonderfully previewed in Vogue); rotating, neon lit skyscrapers; and so, so much video (about which more later). The story – of an Aly (Lois Chimimba) who lives in a broken home and goes to a dingy (and somewhat violent) high school – is substantially about online adventures, both in terms of social networking stuff (Facebook and Twitter) and the interactive online games that provide opportunities to make real friendships. It also hits on some extremely fresh topics: the truth of how awful social media bullying can be (uploading videos of someone being beaten up in the girl’s bathroom; posting ugly shots of them to be mocked on Facebook; getting a hate campaign organized online); the vicious impact of online gambling; the importance of the parallel cyber world that exists around us all of the time even if “the adults” want to pretend it’s not there and it doesn’t matter.

Taking the Alice story and making it the story of one girl’s online adventures is interesting, but, I think, a tale profoundly unsuited to be told in theatrical format. Alice benefits from updating, and it’s always nice to see the familiar characters revisited, but this tale of a girl attempting to get back a stolen identity never manages to pack an emotional punch. It is also burdened down with affirmative messages (“Accept yourself! Know yourself! Be yourself!”) that I felt watered down the narrative to the point of floppiness. Alice’s various online friends fail to have any purpose other than giving her someone else to bounce off of besides the bullies in her school; so why are they even there? The most real parts of the story wind up taking place in the girls’ toilets, where Aly is bullied and then winds up befriending another student who is also trying to escape bullying.

So somewhere in there is a story or three, and nowhere any songs worth remembering or singing, and EVERYTHING is polluted by the excess of video projections, which succeed exactly once in creating a neat and difficult effect (Alice falling down a tunnel) but otherwise look crappy (c’mon, we all watch Pixar, and while I realize these graphics cost real money unfortunately they didn’t have impact proportionate to their expense). I couldn’t help thinking longingly of The Light Princess, with its forest of waterplants that had me gasping with delight; and of Coram Boy, with its amazing underwater scene – all done without benefit of video technology. And, finally, I thought of Opera Holland Park’s shoe string budget Alice in Wonderland opera, which had cardboard sets but very engaging characters and a nice modern twist at all and basically left Wonder.land gasping in all its high res glory.

I’m guessing there’s an SF book about stolen identities hiding in Wonder.land (I’ve probably read four of them just this year), maybe a fun little video game, but what there wasn’t was a compelling night of theater. In fact, watching all of the whiny kids (on stage) standing around playing with their phones complaining about their shit lives, I couldn’t help but think I was stuck in a theater with everything I sought to escape: a world where people look down instead of up, in instead of out, and away instead of toward. It might be suitable for ten year olds who are dazzled by a bunch of bling; but I suspect this prize free Kinder egg will be forgotten hardly before the final curtain drops.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on November 30th, 2015. It continues through April, 2016. This was also the first time I saw a selfie stick used in a play. And I did go back after the interval, well fortified with wine and chocolate. Good job to the actors and crew for managing a very difficult situation last night.)

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