Imagine you’ve captured a wild animal under a net. And it’s straining to escape but it’s pinned down. The mesh cuts into its body and all you see are grotesque lumps of creature coming through the gaps. You know what kind of animal it is already, so you recognise pieces of it that could only belong to that specific animal. But in general the whole spectacle is a bloody and homogenous mess.
wonder.land, written by Moira Buffini and directed by Rufus Norris, is an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 Alice in Wonderland. They’ve made from it a horrible ironic struggle to portray escapism. The production feels desperate to tick boxes and it over-demonstrates so much of what it’s trying to say. Buffini’s book anchors the action in The Real World, which is Grey, full of Grey people doing Grey things, like going shopping and drinking tea and the whole aesthetic is like that of the side characters in a Tim Burton film.
Twelve year old Aly escapes from this Grey world down the rabbit hole of ‘Social Media’. This is the sort of ‘Social Media’ that you read about described as if a single, incomprehensible and alien thing, as opposed to the mundane sort that you’re probably using right now.
Carroll’s book has the absolute minimum indication of the Victorian society it came out of. It’s whimsical, it’s daft, it’s trivial and it’s near as damn it to being a pure piece of play. wonder.land is anchored to its time – signposting it as often as is opportune. Reality gets in the way of fancy – reality is the reason for the fantasy and drives the plot. There’s no departure, nothing to get lost in. This could definitely be read as a criticism of ‘virtual lives’ and the contemporary disappearance of self-actualisation and identity into virtual systems of reward, but the script just doesn’t carry enough weight to convince me that anything matters.
In wonder.land there’s never anything in jeopardy; the virtual world of the play is too inconsequential and the Real World locations are too brief or too much familiar stereotypes to hold any element of danger. Damon Albarn’s songs do nothing to help. The lyrics, also written by Buffini, are inane and repetitive; they’re incredibly repetitive in fact – as if Buffini wrote a verse she liked and decided it was good enough to be used for the entire song, the rhymes are embarrassingly obvious and Albarn’s contribution is a series of bland bleeps and bloops, awkward melodies that seem designed to make the singer’s voice sound as unbearable as possible, resulting in a score which is both unexciting and mercifully forgettable.
The musical feels more like an extended vehicle designed to trot out references to Carroll’s novel than to communicate any sort of meaningful plot. Lines to the effect of ‘That’s a nice hat!’ signpost the moments Buffini wants us to notice ‘Oh, that’s the mad hatter then! Isn’t that clever? He’s got a hat on!’ And I’m still not ready to forgive the line ‘Weird and weirder!’
Subtlety takes another kick in the teeth in the form of the main antagonist – Ms Manxome, the headteacher of Aly’s school, who in an inexplicable monologue soon after arriving onstage explains to the entire school that she is their headteacher now, because they were put on special measures last year and et cetera and et cetera and whose benefit is this for? This queen of exposition later confiscates Aly’s phone, steals her online identity and declares herself ‘The Red Queen’, before being literally dragged away by Men in White Coats while the ensemble sing joyfully (and repetitively) about how ‘She’s nuts!’
So it’s a happy ending. Because the ‘nuts’ woman has been dragged offstage and she’s gone now, presumably in a padded cell and a straitjacket to comically babble to herself between ECT sessions. It baffles me that out of all the elements Buffini has stripped from her source text, Victorian attitudes to mental health and ‘madness’ are the one she seems to have deemed worthy of intensifying.
You know what’s lazy about ‘mad’ characters? They can do anything and it’s ‘because they’re mad’. They can dance on tables, hit people, get arrested, and the audience will apparently find the whole thing hilarious. Because they’re mad! isn’t that funny? So Ms Manxome tells us she ‘hates children’, she’s the worst kind of pseudo-humane, Govite school leader, who clearly is not helping the children at the school she’s been put in charge of. But that’s Just Because She’s Mad! These sorts of people presumably don’t really exist (they do) but if they did, they’re Mad so they’d be shut away so they can’t hurt us (they are not).
‘Madness’ in wonder.land is either quirky and harmless, as in the case of Aly’s ‘Mad Hatter’ father, or dangerous and locked away, as with Ms Manxome. Both ‘mad’ characters end up locked away at some point because of their madness. wonder.land’s attitude to madness is dangerous. The amount the audience laughed at and applauded this scared me.