Interview: Moira Buffini on ‘wonder.land’

The play fuses Lewis Carroll’s Victorian vision with today’s online alternative realities
Moira Buffini, Rufus Norris and Damon Albarn

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Lately the playwright Moira Buffini has been playing a lot of video games. So what, you may think; if she wants to spend her spare time chasing skeletons and zapping monsters, that is her affair.

In fact, the hours spent mastering the games console are research. Together with musician and composer Damon Albarn, Buffini has written wonder.land, a new musical inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that is headlining this year’s Manchester International Festival. In their version, directed by Rufus Norris, artistic director of the National Theatre, Wonderland becomes an online game. It’s a move, she explains, that updates Lewis Carroll’s mysterious classic (celebrating its 150th anniversary this year) for the digital age: “The rabbit hole that children disappear down today is the internet.”

It is certainly a neat fit. Like Wonderland, the virtual world is peopled by all sorts of fantastical creatures. Identity can be fluid, online games follow elaborate rules and nothing is quite what it seems. And the setting responds to one of the enduring questions about the story: where exactly is Wonderland?

But there’s more to the move than keeping up with the times. Buffini explains that adapting Carroll’s bizarre, deliberately nonsensical story for stage presents difficulties because its very nature is at odds with good dramatic structure. Though Buffini’s recent hit Handbagged demonstrated her flair for meta-theatrical mischief, initially she was stumped by her latest task.

“It’s the toughest adaptation I’ve ever done,” she says. “Alice in Wonderland doesn’t have a narrative in the traditional sense at all. In drama, your protagonist changes; Alice doesn’t change — except in size. And in drama your protagonist does things; Alice is reactive. Things happen to Alice and there’s no accumulation or acceleration, it’s just one strange event after the next. The conventions of the musical demand the exact opposite of what Alice in Wonderland gives you.”

A rehearsal of ‘wonder.land'

We meet early one morning before rehearsals at the National Theatre, where the show plays after Manchester. Buffini is not the type to dodge a challenge — the last time we met, she was wrestling with bringing the oddball nightmares of the children’s novel Marianne Dreams to the stage.

At the centre of wonder.land is Aly, an unhappy 12-year-old who escapes her real environs by transforming into her online avatar: Alice, a pretty girl in a blue dress who can handle anything that comes her way. The “real” framework develops the narrative, taking the pressure off “having to make story in Wonderland”, Buffini explains, and enabling the show to keep faith with the elusive strangeness of Carroll’s creation. And the two-tiered structure exposes the discrepancy between Aly’s real and online identities and the way they interact.

“The whole play is about ‘who are you?’” says Buffini. “It’s about a girl who doesn’t like herself, and by the end of the play, she does.”

The show joins a growing body of plays depicting the internet. You might expect theatre to shy away from cyberspace, given that screen-based entertainment is a rival for audience attention and that the elastic nature of the virtual worlds seems antithetical to the physical nature of stage drama. But playwrights have rushed to plunge down this particular rabbit hole — often with successful results.

A mood wall at the theatre

Just recently, Tim Price’s Teh Internet is Serious Business explored the world of online hacking, James Graham’s Privacy examined changing attitudes to what is personal and what is public in the digital age, and Jennifer Haley’s The Nether investigated the impact that “consequence-free” behaviour in a virtual environment might have on moral reasoning. Each of them demonstrated that the friction between the virtual and the physical can be very revealing. Actions and remarks that might seem harmless on a screen can be exposed in a live, 3D space to highlight subtle shifts in the way we think, communicate and act. Theatre, as a communal forum, is proving to be an excellent place to discuss the new challenges we face and to explore what we might call virtual morality.

Buffini says that wonder.land will address some of the more worrying aspects of the internet for children — online bullying, for example — but it is not, she stresses, a negative show. Rather it seeks to evoke and celebrate the wonder of this mercurial invention: the opportunities for escapism, wit, fun and creativity, and the ease with which today’s teenagers slip between real and virtual planes.

“Just as when you are walking along the road and you are looking at a screen you are in two worlds simultaneously, that is what we have attempted to achieve theatrically,” she says. “I love the blend of old theatrical tricks and high tech. We have amazing screens so you can see what is on a character’s smartphone . . . coupled with all the oldest theatrical tricks in the book and just really silly simple solutions that are very live and theatrical. And we’ve got characters coming from the 2D world into the 3D world: the caterpillar starts on the screen and then comes out of the screen on to the stage.”

This mix of old and new will be evident too in Albarn’s music, which fuses melodies inflected by popular Victorian song with electronic sound — a style Buffini describes as “music hall meets techno”. And the whole creative team has form with playful experimentation: Albarn collaborated with Norris on the contemporary opera Dr Dee; Norris directed the daring musical London Road; Rae Smith designed the sets for War Horse.

Rosalie Craig as Alice

Buffini suggests that the arrival of the digital age has thrown down a gauntlet to theatre artists, but argues that the medium can rise to the challenge. While some plays have tackled the ethical issues presented by the internet, others — such as immersive and interactive shows — have responded to the enthusiasm for role-play and alternative realities by plunging audiences into vividly detailed environments. In theatre, after all, you can be submerged in another, 3D world without using a headset.

“Theatre is more fluid than anything else,” she says. “I’ve written a lot of film and I think theatre is more fluid than film. You can be inside someone’s head and outside simultaneously; you can be in several different realities at the same time. There’s a scene at the end of wonder.land where we are in a police station, in a school, in different people’s bedrooms, and we’re all online and we’re all in wonder.land. But what we’re doing there is singing chorally. So we’re doing something that is very old-fashioned, very theatrical — singing together — and yet also revealing is the weird nature of our modern isolation.”

The musical may revitalise Lewis Carroll’s text for today’s 10-year-olds. But as a recent convert to the gaming thrills of Skyrim and Assassin’s Creed, Buffini suggests that this family show may be an eye-opener for the older generation too.

“If you brought your gran along, by the end I hope she would have more of an idea of what you are doing online!” she says. “I hope it opens up that world a bit.”

‘wonder.land’ runs June 29-July 12, Palace Theatre, Manchester, mif.co.uk, and from November 27, National Theatre, London, nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photographs: Sarah Lee; Brinkhoff/ Moegenburg

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