Through The Looking Glass, after Lewis Carroll. Libretto by Andrew Upton, composed by Alan John. Conducted by Richard Gill, directed by Michael Kantor, set design, costumes and puppets by Peter Corrigan, lighting design by Paul Jackson. With Jacqueline Bathman, Emilia Bertolini, Kanen Breen, Francesca Codd, Margaret Haggart, Hayley Heath, Dana Hehir, David Hobson, Suzanne Johnston, Stephanie Pidcock, Gary Rowley and Dimity Shepherd. Malthouse Theatre and Victorian Opera @ The Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until May 31. ...nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows Carroll's famous acrostic at the end of the book, which spells out Alice's name, is almost the final word in the opera. It too expresses a haunting of dull adulthood by charged childish memories - "Alice moving under skies / Never seen by waking eyes". But the effect was more overwhelmingly poignant than this poem, a prime example of Victorian sentiment, can perhaps explain, and probably resulted - I am guessing - from the lifting to the surface of complex subterranean movements throughout the opera, and their unexpected connection with my own complex memories. Like the truth behind this story, these emotional currents are impossible to trace; they resist conscious intellection and articulation. But I suspect that one of things I ask from art is that it invites such experiences, even if I'm not sure what they mean, or even what they are. Those are the moments that go through you, like wine through water, and subtly change the colour of your mind. Picture: David Hobson and Dimity Shepherd in Through the Looking Glass. Photo: Jeff Busby
Childhood is a famously troubled realm. A few hundred years ago it scarcely existed past infancy - in mediaeval paintings and drawings, children are depicted as miniature adults, with the same clothing, the same shoes, the same dour expressions. As is still the case in many places in the world, children were part of a family's capital, and were expected to earn their keep from an early age. It took the Romantics to invent childhood, a kingdom in which the child, his eyes still innocent of the vulgarities of adulthood, had a privileged access to being.
The division of the child from the man more or less began with Rousseau, and was extended through poems like Wordsworth's The Prelude, in which the poet dropped the adult "burthen of my own unnatural self" through contemplating the free child he once had been. It took the Victorians to bring this to a rich apogee of sentiment - that staple of Australian childhood, Coles Funny Picture Book, is packed to the gills with dimpled little girls with bows in their hair, clutching kittens and lisping saccharine rhymes about their love for Daddy.
But there was, of course, a darker side to Victorian childhood, when children worked in shocking conditions in "dark Satanic mills" from an early age. Only the privileged could afford a childhood. And violence was a major part of life, even for those privileged children - corporal punishment was a parental duty, its threat reinforced by books like Struwwelpeter, in which wicked children met dreadful deaths in a morally satisfying circle. The tension between childish innocence and childish wickedness, idealised childhood and childhood as a state of degradation and powerlessness, was perhaps at its height at this time.
It resulted in some extraordinary literature, of which Lewis Carroll's children's books, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, are probably the most famous. In these stories, first invented by Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson to entertain the young Alice Liddell during a boatride down a river, enchantment is suffused by a surreal cruelty and callousness. This often discomforting ambiguity is a major part of the books' continuing fascination, and the driving force behind this operatic adaptation by composer Alan John and librettist Andrew Upton.
At the heart of this opera is a photograph Dodgson took of Alice as a child. She appears to have been artfully posed: her head is tilted slightly so she looks over her naked, exposed shoulder, her expression knowing, suggestive of an adult sexuality at odds with her thin, childish body. Whether these and other photos Dodgson took of young girls show him to be a paedophile is a hotly debated question, although there is no evidence that he was. What is beyond doubt, however, is the disturbing power of the image, poised between childish unknowing and adult knowingness and caught in the gaze of the photographer, like those Victorian collections of butterflies pinned under glass.
The opera adapts Through the Looking Glass as a double narrative, exploring the writing of the story, and Alice Pleasance Liddell's subsequent lifelong identification as Carroll's creation, through the strange landscape of Carroll's fantasy. Upton's libretto reaches no conclusions and no judgments about Dodgson himself: rather, he follows Alice through the writer's projections, a confusing mirror-world in which she loses her identity, even her own name; a world in which she exists only as a figment of someone else's imagination. As Tweedle Dum says of the Red King, "why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!"
John's score exploits the full resources of a small band - harp, piano, harmonium and percussion - and, like the production itself, makes little concession to the tropes of Victorian England. It's inventive theatrical music, which plunges straight into the action: it's always unexpected, diving from dissonant sound into lyric melody, evoking moods from comedy to sorrow to absurdity. In fact, at the end, when only four musicians stood up to bow, I was taken completely by surprise - how had so few made so much and so various music? I should also note Richard Gill's presence, not only as conductor, but for his speaking part ("Hang onto the goat's beard!") which broke an imaginary wall between band and stage, and stirred a ripple of laughter. As Gill is playing a train conductor, it's also a terrible pun.
Although this double narrative is dramatically clear, if perhaps confusing at the beginning of the opera, it's tactfully done. It brings a Freudian subtext to warnings about the Jabberwock ("The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!") and Humpty Dumpty's exhortation to Alice to stop growing at seven, while still permitting creations like the White Queen and the Tweedle twins their full Carrollean nonsense. And those expecting a lush evocation of a John Tenniel drawing will be disappointed: for one thing, the model for Tenniel's Alice is reportedly another of Carroll's child friends, Mary Hilton Badcock; and for another, Peter Corrigan's design has reached forward into modernity, growing up as Alice Liddel herself did into the 20th century.
So it is an adult Alice we encounter, dressed unexpectedly in trousers and shirt and carrying a couple of suitcases: perhaps she is touring America, where she made a living giving appearances as the "real Alice". And it is the adult Alice who wanders through the looking glass, here represented by giant shards of broken mirror, to reclaim her identity from the perverse trio of child Alices, dressed in long-legged striped stocking and huge bows, which surround her.
Peter Corrigan's design, a stark geometric fantasy, is central to this opera. The set is a white box marked out in squares, with the band perched above the stage. The floor can be darkened at will to become a chessboard (among other things, Through the Looking Glass is a heavily disguised chess game) and the back wall opens into unexpected doors and windows, or remains a blank screen for a series of projections - a painting of a volcano erupting, fairytale castles, ancient murals - that become a mysterious alternative narrative to the action on stage. It has to be said that sometimes the images become rather too mysterious - I was completely thrown by an image of a World War 1 battlefield emblazoned with the title of Robert Graves' famous war novel, Goodbye To All That - but much of the time the incongruity of the images creates fruitful tensions.
It creates a fertile environment for Michael Kantor's spare direction. This is a very stylish production, where the watchword is restraint and clarity rather than excess: those who have seen his recent work at Malthouse might well be surprised. What emerges are startling and haunting images that dissolve from the grotesque to the lyric, conducted with an unerring sense of theatrical rhythm and dynamic. The mise en scene is continually various and inventive. And Kantor has drawn some strong performances from an excellent cast.
Dimity Shepherd steps through the central and very demanding role of the adult Alice with a poignant authority, and is ably matched by David Hobson playing Lewis Carroll and his shadows - the White Knight, the Train Driver and Humpty Dumpty. The scene with Humpty Dumpty (represented by an Ubu doll puppet) is a highlight, and one of the few times Upton uses Carroll's poems unchanged. Another highlight is Margaret Haggart as the White Queen, in a central scene in which time moves backwards and forwards ("it's a poor sort of memory," says the Queen, "that only works backwards").
As it moves towards its close, the opera becomes increasingly elegaic. Midway through, Carroll mourns the loss of the immediate being of childhood, the child who, with careless innocence, reaches with "bright and eager eyes" for scented rushes which at once begin to fade. But Carroll's perception - envious, greedy, banished from Eden - is overlaid by the grown Alice's mourning for her stolen self - the child who became other under the pressure of Carroll's gaze, splintering into unrecognisable shards - and whom she reclaims.
In its final moments, this opera hit me unexpectedly with a surprising and painful release of emotion; somehow it had stolen up behind me while I was watching, without my noticing. It was, I think, something like the kind of recognition expressed in Dylan Thomas's poem Fern Hill (quoted here with the lineation barbarously mistreated by blogger):
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land...
...nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
Carroll's famous acrostic at the end of the book, which spells out Alice's name, is almost the final word in the opera. It too expresses a haunting of dull adulthood by charged childish memories - "Alice moving under skies / Never seen by waking eyes". But the effect was more overwhelmingly poignant than this poem, a prime example of Victorian sentiment, can perhaps explain, and probably resulted - I am guessing - from the lifting to the surface of complex subterranean movements throughout the opera, and their unexpected connection with my own complex memories.
Like the truth behind this story, these emotional currents are impossible to trace; they resist conscious intellection and articulation. But I suspect that one of things I ask from art is that it invites such experiences, even if I'm not sure what they mean, or even what they are. Those are the moments that go through you, like wine through water, and subtly change the colour of your mind.
Picture: David Hobson and Dimity Shepherd in Through the Looking Glass. Photo: Jeff Busby