Damon Albarn goes down the rabbit hole
By Robert Douglas-Fairhurst – 15th June 2015
It is a sunny afternoon in June, and London’s South Bank is heaving with teenagers on a school trip. They are engaged in the serious business of bickering and flirting, in voices that have grown slightly too big for their bodies, while checking their Twitter feeds or posing for Instagram photos without pausing for breath. The line between real life and its online double is one they cross so often it has become practically invisible.
Nearby, in a rehearsal room at the National Theatre, a similar scene is being played out by a group of fresh-faced young actors. They are rehearsing Damon Albarn and Moira Buffini’s new musical wonder.land, a bold attempt to reimagine Lewis Carroll’s Alice books for the computer age, and they have just reached a point in the story where a group of children introduce themselves as the players of an online game. Safely hidden behind their avatars – including the Mock Turtle (a girl in a cardboard box) and Lizard (a boy in a spangly pink dress) – they launch into a song explaining that they escape into a virtual world to feel less alone.
But something’s not quite right. The lyric “I look for Wonderland/ In the palm of my hand” isn’t working. The show opens at the Manchester International Festival in what director Rufus Norris describes as “a frighteningly short number of weeks” (on June 29), before transferring to the National Theatre in November. Buffini, whose last play, Handbagged, depicted the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and the Queen, is rewriting another scene, her laptop screen rapidly filling up with red. “Somewhere there’s Wonderland/ Where I can be free,” she suggests, and everyone reaches into a jar of pencils to alter their scripts.
This might surprise anyone who thinks that a rehearsal merely involves the actors learning how to say their lines without bumping into the scenery. Not Albarn, however, who admits to getting “a bit dewy-eyed” at the prospect of having a show on at the National Theatre. His mother was a stage designer for Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, a company that pioneered the development of such musicals as Oh! What a Lovely War through equally painstaking collaboration. “Musicals aren’t written, they’re rewritten,” he says with a slightly rueful smile. “I really understand that now.”
Chatting in a cell-like dressing room, he admits that “living in the parallel world of rehearsals for my Blur gigs in the morning, and then coming here and being sent off to a room to write” is an exhausting schedule, but insists that he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This is the first thing I’ve done where I feel like I’m in that world [of the theatre workshop], and that’s what makes it so exciting.”
Albarn’s own journey to Wonderland has been a long and winding one. “As a child I was very disturbed by Alice in Wonderland,” he says, because it so closely echoed his nightmares in which “there was no rationale” for how people behaved.
Having been invited to shape the story into a musical by Alex Poots, the artistic director of the Manchester International Festival, at first he sought a real-life equivalent in North Korea, travelling there in early 2014 with sampling machines and secret cameras to gather material, as “that seemed to be a good place to find the rabbit hole on Planet Earth”. He remembers taking out his copy of the book on the train down from the Chinese border to Pyonyang: “I drew a soldier’s hat on the White Rabbit, and was terrified they’d find it.”
But it was only when he discussed the project with Buffini and Norris (with whom he had previously worked on the 2011 opera Dr Dee), that it became clear where a truly modern Wonderland was to be found: online. All three have teenage children, and although teenagers have long been accused of living in a world of their own, technology has now made that a practical option.
“These rabbit holes exist on every single phone,” Albarn points out, “and our kids disappear down them even though physically they’re still in the room.” Wonderland has become http://www.onderland.
It’s not the first time someone has made this connection. In 1965, the internet pioneer Ivan Sutherland proposed a computer simulation that could be “the Wonderland into which Alice walked”, and today it’s possible to download a programme called Alice that makes the creation of virtual worlds child’s play.
Online, it is possible to answer the Caterpillar’s question to Alice – “Who are you?” – in any way one wants. Spotty virgins can transform into handsome studs; social outcasts can become the centre of attention. It is like a natural extension of Carroll’s dream world, in which nothing is quite what it seems, from the white roses that the Queen’s gardeners are frantically painting red, to the baby that turns into a pig and trots off into the wood. As the Duchess advises Alice in Carroll’s sequel Through the Looking-Glass, “Be what you would seem to be.”
wonder.land fleshes out this idea into a story of genuine wit and charm. Aly (Lois Chimimba) is a shy mixed-race 12-year-old girl, who is unhappy at home and being bullied at her new school. Seeking refuge online, she creates the blonde-haired avatar Alice (Rosalie Craig) and sets out to explore a world that seems far easier to negotiate than the real alternative.
Like many comedies, in other words, wonder.land is a story of mistaken identity. The twist is that Aly is still trying to work out who she is. That makes it something of a modern fable, according to Craig, because “we do live through our screens a lot these days, and we look for ourselves in them”. Yet when Aly looks online she “doesn’t want to see herself”. Instead she creates an avatar who is “bold and confident and curious”, Chimimba says, “and more ready to take on the world”.
Things get curiouser and curiouser. The head teacher at Aly’s school, a power-hungry monster also called Alice, confiscates her phone and tries to turn the online Alice into a weapon against all the children she secretly despises. Suddenly Alice’s puzzled remark in the original story, “I’m not myself”, starts to take on a dizzying range of extra meanings.
For many people, the screen most closely associated with Alice in Wonderland remains the cinema, from Disney’s 1951 cartoon to Tim Burton’s darker 2010 fantasy. Yet the theatre is arguably a more natural home for Carroll’s heroine. One of John Tenniel’s original illustrations shows her pulling back the curtain that hides the door into Wonderland, like a nervous actress about to step onto the stage, and much of what she discovers there reflects Carroll’s lifelong love of the theatre.
In Tenniel’s other illustrations, the Dodo and Caterpillar even appear to have fully formed human hands, as if their bodies were elaborate costumes they could remove whenever they shuffled off into the wings.
Carroll himself advised on an early stage adaptation, billed as A Musical Dream-Play, which opened at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre in 1886. Yet while the audience of this musical enjoyed seeing scenes like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party brought to life, like a series of animated pop-up pictures, there was no attempt to challenge their expectations.
wonder.land certainly promises to do that, with a heroine whose problems include a father with an online gambling addiction. It is a family show that reveals how easily families can fall apart.
However, while Norris acknowledges that the internet remains “uncharted territory”, he is quick to stress wonder.land’s positive message. Until recently, he points out, it was hard to be popular at school if you weren’t sporty or good-looking, whereas “gaming has produced a whole new in-crowd, and far more young people now have access to the sort of identity and self-belief they didn’t have before”. Buffini agrees, arguing that “the internet isn’t just a place of lurking danger; it’s a place of great creativity as well”.
The same is true of what wonder.land does to Carroll’s story. Almost every scene includes a playful twist on what we might expect. Dum and Dee are young Texan beauty queens who stuff themselves with imaginary jam tarts as a way of escaping their daily regime of depilation and spray tans, while Aly describes her baby brother as “a little pig” not because he has turned into one, but because he has just vomited all over her. As Norris stresses, this is “a very, very loose adaptation”.
So what would Carroll have made of it? Given that he once tried to buy Charles Babbage’s forerunner of the modern computer, and enjoyed creating mazes and puzzles, he would probably have been fascinated by online games. As someone who invented a literary pseudonym he could hide behind, he would also have understood the appeal of avatars. Like a teenager in a chatroom posing as “chunkymonkey1” or “lilprincesslol”, he too found it easier to express himself when pretending to be someone else.
Above all, as a man whose personality brought together nervous conservatism and a love of novelty, he would have relished the sight and sound of this modern theatrical Wonderland. Stunning projections from the design team behind War Horse surround moments of touching simplicity, such as the decision to make Humpty Dumpty an ordinary child holding a balloon. Lush music hall harmonies are intercut with loops of electronic noise and spiky passages reminiscent of Kurt Weill.
Although Albarn happily recalls the musicals he performed in at school, such as West Side Story and Guys and Dolls, he is dismissive of the “garbage” of modern musical theatre. “That’s probably going to alienate me to a lot of people”, he admits, and laughs loudly as he realises “I’ve set myself up for a massive great fall”. But he cannot hide his genuine dislike of such slick popular entertainment: “It’s saccharine, it’s predictable, it’s cynical.”
He wants wonder.land to be different. “I’ve been trying to make it as beautiful and tuneful as I think it needs to be,” he says, “but also as sad as it needs to be.”
That makes him a good collaborator for Norris, whose most innovative musical before he took up his new post as director of the National Theatre was undoubtedly Alecky Blythe’s London Road (recently released as a feature film), which set the words of real people to Adam Cork’s heart-catching music, but never confused genuine feeling with fake sentiment. For these characters, music was a believable release from the demands of everyday life; they broke into song in the same way that someone might suddenly break into a smile. wonder.land has the potential to be equally surprising.
Back in the rehearsal room, Aly’s avatar is discovering the secrets of her new online friends. “They call me Pizza Face at school,” sings the Dodo, while the Lizard blurts out “Sometimes I wear my sister’s bra”, before everyone joins in with the newly written chorus, “Somewhere there’s Wonderland/ Where I can be free”. Meanwhile, the real teenagers outside pose for another round of selfies, and again disappear into their smartphones.