The Carroll Myth

Thu 4th – Sun 28th August 2011

reviews

Pat Massey

at 12:02 on 27th Aug 2011

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A show whose components each merit five stars- props, costumes, originality- result in a four star production. A riddle, perhaps, to outwit Carroll himself.

The essence of the piece is “Carroll in Wonderland”, an interpretation whereby his real-life acquaintances take on the guise of Wonderland characters. This is a genius approach. The Red Queen and Mad Hatter become even more skewed as fragments of Carroll's mind, allowing a maturer interpretation without going down a risky 'Return to Oz' route. Much should be attributed to the cast, who play dual roles without compromising the credibility of either. Inn particular I enjoyed Charlie Rendle, whose Mad Hatter unnerves whether hissing or screaming, anchoring his performance in the most sinister eyes. Each cast member has at least one memorable moment, making it hard to isolate more examples, but all tap into the threatening side of the absurd. Joshua Ogle is a sympathetic Carroll, who brings an underlying frustration to a character so downtrodden as to risk alienating us by way of his weakness. When he finally issues a growling threat of “fantastical proportions” to his imagined assailants... well. I could listen to it on loop.

From a technical perspective, the show is faultless. If such an atmosphere as 'Dangerous Whimsy' does not exist already, 'The Carroll Myth' defines it. The study set is infiltrated by a rich red vine over its window; various Carroll poems receive enactments of varying strangeness ('The Walrus and the Carpenter' finally becomes the horror we all knew it was); music from a piano and what I suspect is a clarinet creeps us out whilst being, taken in isolation, equally suitable for a Petrarchan landscape. Three people left before the end, and I suspect the odds of you following them would depend on your tolerance for 'je ne sais quoi'.

It is likely that you read this aware of the debates over Carroll's attachment to his real-life Alice. You expect this issue to culminate the piece; you expect, as Wonderland becomes more and more insidious in Carroll's life, an ending which makes us shudder. The problem is, there are reams of rumour over what Carroll did or didn't actually do. This resigns the story to an inconclusive ending from the start. So strong a production needs a strong ending, and in retrospect I can't help but think that, despite the many small gems I could rattle off, the show feels interrupted. Nathan Shreeve's script has so much promise, it needs a canvas greater than a mere snapshot in Carroll's life.

This, I think, explains the missing star. Shreeve has such a good idea he can't fully exploit it, and I came out asking 'I wonder how that plot thread could have progressed?', and 'Which other characters could have infiltrated Carroll's life?'. The play overran by five minutes, yet I wish it could be longer.

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Julia Chapman

at 12:29 on 27th Aug 2011

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Why is a raven like a writing desk? Though there may be no logical answer to Lewis Carroll’s eternal riddle, logic became redundant in this whimsical, arresting, and fascinating play. Stunningly intermingling the real life of Charles Dodgson with the imaginary world in Lewis Carroll’s mind, The Carroll Myth was an astonishing piece of theatre in every way. Accompanied by exquisite original music and visually captivating, this exploration of the dichotomy between logic and fantasy would convert any mathematician to the dark side of the irrational.

Written by Nathan Shreeve of Schmucks Theatre, The Carroll Myth examines the life of mathematician Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) as he writes Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (And What Alice Found There). The story is written in the same way Tom Stoppard and co. wrote Shakespeare in Love: part-fiction, part truth, both facets twisted to unearth the sources of the wild imaginings of the writer. Shreeve fabricates a tale in which Dodgson is inspired to create the White Rabbit by the Porter of Christ Church who finds the mathematician’s timekeeping abominable, the Red Queen by Alice Liddell’s angry mother, and the Tweedles by two rather daft groundskeepers. These characters were so well written that nothing about their translation from reality to fantasy felt contrived, and whether or not these inspirations have any grounding in truth, Shreeve’s writing is convincing enough to persuade us that they might.

The storytelling of The Carroll Myth was enchanting. Everyone knows the story of Alice, but Shreeve’s play had a certain suspense to it that made the story feel fresh and new. The scene in which Alice outlines the ridiculous nature of Dodgson’s stories, reducing all the events of her adventures to his forcing her to fall down a bottomless pit, have tea with a man of ‘questionable moral standing’, nearly drown in a pool of her own tears, and shrink her without her consent, was laughably logical, highlighting the counterpoint between reason and reverie that encapsulated Dodgson’s life by simultaneously making the fantastic seem silly, and the logical seem ridiculous.

The characters that inhabit Wonderland swarm around Dodgson, blurring the line between reality and fiction. The line becomes ever more unclear as the play progresses and as Dodgson’s confusion increases, his outbursts at the characters in his mind frequently occur in social situations, suggesting a schizophrenic madness.

The delicate matter of Dodgson’s purported paedophilia was approached with sensitivity but a definite opinion was expressed. Shreeve has Carroll – almost – profess his feelings to Alice, but ensures that he explains how the feelings developed over time, blossoming as she blossomed, rendering the twenty-year age gap between the two far less sinister. Ogle’s Dodgson was anything but perverse, lovingly gazing at Alice and stroking her hair in an affectionate but not an erotic manner, whereas Jones’ doe-eyed and fresh-faced Alice exuded a precocious sexuality that made her seem older than her years.

Joshua Ogle as Dodgson/Carroll was suitably tormented as he captured the dual personalities of the writer. In the real world, his Dodgson was a stammering, conflicted man, but when he disappeared into Wonderland he became confident and full of life. Sarah Adams as the Red Queen and Alice’s mother practically had steam emerging from her ears when enraged, and her transition from the protective Victorian mother to the sovereign of Wonderland was very natural. Instead of one Cheshire Cat there were three, a decision that never was quite explained, however good they all were. When they danced with Alice in a balletic movement piece, however, their performance was so spectacular that I stopped wondering why they were in triplicate and simply allowed myself to be beguiled by their sinuous dance.

The music, which was hauntingly beautiful, was composed for the production, and fitted the piece to perfection. I was left wanting more only because I was so captivated by the wistful melodies. The lit candle onstage which remained as the sole source of light at the end of one scene was incredibly evocative. A writing desk, so unlike a raven, and an armchair served as the set in a space that was too small for the production, but did make the atmosphere rather intimate.

It is difficult to fault this stunningly innovative and cleverly written production. Full of wondrous contradictions, Schmucks Theatre’s The Carroll Myth leaves its audience feeling as though they have been tumbling down rabbit holes, and leads them to ask themselves, “Who needs logic?”

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