Amid shouts of delight during the performance and showers of daffodils at the final curtain, the Royal Ballet’s new Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was revealed to us on Monday night. And I wish I could share in such enthusiasm for the staging, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, designed by Bob Crowley and with a score by Joby Talbot. But the dramatic ducking and weaving, the oh-so-clever inventions, that have been necessary to bring Lewis Carroll’s tale to the ballet stage have produced a work more frantic than compelling, more feverish even than Alice’s adventures.
The sad fact is that Carroll’s inconsequentialities, which made Alice an Urtext for surrealism, are altogether too unlikely to admit of a danced life – as previous versions I have seen have made clear. Wheeldon and his dramaturg have sought to impose structure on the action with a Nutcracker-ish prologue set in Christ Church gardens, where Dean Liddell, his wife and daughters, are seen amid assorted guests, including Carroll. Also on view is Jack, a gardener’s boy, and a good deal of tiresome mumming from everyone on stage. Thence, of course, Alice plummets to Wonderland, where Carroll becomes the White Rabbit, and the ballet is knee-deep in alter egos. What follows is a frenetic display of incidents that realise, with varying success, the action of the tale, until a noxious closing that brings Alice, Jack and Carroll to modern times in the garden.
Talbot’s score is bright, hard-edged, less than ingratiating and, with a sugary waltz, a danger to diabetics. A thin line on which the latter part of the ballet hangs is the fact that Alice (aged seven in Carroll’s narrative, but here a stalwart young woman in Lauren Cuthbertson’s impersonation) is in love with the gardener’s-boy-and-Knave-of-Hearts, played with elegance by Sergey Polunin. Various Royal Ballet artists assume various disguises: Edward Watson as an ideal White Rabbit and Carroll; Zenaida Yanowsky as Alice’s mother and, sublimely, the Queen of Hearts; Steven McRae, tapping with electric finesse, as the Mad Hatter; and a guest, Simon Russell Beale, as the Duchess, offering a heavily crinolined portrait of Victorian bossiness.
The real hero of this enterprise is Crowley, whose imagination is a match for Carroll’s. What the book describes in its wildest imaginings, Crowley puts on stage by means of film, projections, witty costuming, dazzling feats of legerdemain, and decorative bravura. The final court-scene is splendidly a house of cards. Alice’s changes in size are felicitously brought off, and the croquet game has its proper flamingos, hedgehogs and mayhem. Here is masterly design.
Wheeldon’s choreography is efficient, lit with passages of felicitous imagination – a cod version of the Rose adagio for Yanowsky is wildly funny. But the driving energies of Talbot’s score, its coarse-grained moments, and the need to realise as much as possible of Carroll’s narrative, do not allow Wheeldon’s gifts to breathe. The piece is as hectic as a rollercoaster, and too fast for its own good.