Alice in the Isles of Wonder

‘You’ll never guess where I’ve been!’ exclaimed Alice.

‘Don’t tell me, you fell down a rabbit hole.’

‘Don’t be silly!’ said Alice.  ‘I saw a dragonfly, and I followed him, from the mouth of the river Thames right through the English countryside, faster and faster and on and on, past young boys fishing and geese and rowers, over the Houses of Parliament and dop dop dop East Enders then whoosh down through Tower Bridge and the Thames Barrier and there I was in the middle of a field. And all around me were country people dancing round a maypole and men playing cricket with beards and …’


‘What do you mean, men playing cricket with beards?’ snorted the White Rabbit.

‘Well the batsman had a beard,’ said Alice, annoyed at the interruption.

‘You mean like W G Grace.’

‘And then there came this carriage with horses, and from it stepped some men in big hats. And one of them, Abraham Lincoln I believe …’

Abraham Lincoln or Isambard K Brunel (

‘Who told you that?’

‘Why NBC of course!’

‘… stepped up onto this hill and spoke to the people. He told them not to be afraid, the isle was full of noises, but they wouldn’t hurt anyone.’



‘That was Caliban, from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’.’

‘Oh.’ Alice frowned. ‘He didn’t look a bit like Caliban.’

‘So then what happened?’

‘Then all of a sudden the yokels stopped what they were doing and packed up their houses and rolled up the turf and put away the maypole. It took some time. And in place of the fields huge chimneystacks began to grow, right out of the ground …’

‘Chimneystacks don’t grow out of the ground!’ The White Rabbit peered closely at the little girl. ‘Are you sure you haven’t been drinking something?’

‘I don’t know what you mean!’ Alice pouted.

‘Something that had a label saying ‘Drink me’, for instance?’

‘I would never do such a thing!’ cried Alice, staring the White Rabbit fiercely in the eye.

‘Very well, I believe you. Continue.’

‘Then all these people appeared, wearing helmets, and they were smiting and smelting and marching and hammering.’

‘I can’t see how it is possible,’ interrupted the White Rabbit, ‘to hammer and smelt and march, all at the same time.’

‘They were not doing it at the same time,’ said Alice, with an impatient shake of her head. ‘Some of them were hammering and some of them were marching. They called it “leftwing claptrap”.’

‘”Leftwing claptrap”? Who called it that?’

‘A Tory politician and the Daily Mail. And meanwhile the gentlemen with the big hats…’

‘Abraham Lincoln’s cronies?’ smirked the White Rabbit.

‘… were doing this strange kind of dance. Punching the air and shovelling.’

‘Curiouser and curiouser. And then?’

‘And then,’ continued Alice, ‘the smelters, the ones with the helmets, they were making this big circle of what looked like molten metal. And all of a sudden the molten metal circle rose up into the air and there were five of them …’

‘Five what?’

‘Five circles. And the circles moved slowly together and linked and turned into …’

‘Don’t tell me,’ chortled the White Rabbit. ‘The five Olympics rings.’

‘How did you know?’ Alice’s eyes grew wider and wider.


‘Just a guess. And meanwhile…’ the White Rabbit was laughing openly now. ‘What was – Abraham Lincoln, did you say? – what was he doing?’

‘He was walking around in a vague sort of a way and smiling a lot.’

‘And what was the next thing?’

Alice thought for a moment. It was a long moment, so she placed her finger on her lip and tilted her head to one side, in the manner of a character from a children’s book of fairy tales.

‘Fairy tales!’ she exclaimed at last.

‘Tales about us, you mean.’ The White Rabbit twitched his nose, in a White Rabbit kind of a way. ‘Very self referential.’

‘There were little black creatures. And Voldemort from Harry Potter and the Child Catcher from Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang.’

‘You appear to be very well versed in children’s fairy tales, young lady.’

‘Not really. That’s what they told us on the BBC. And the creatures haunted the young children in the beds so they crept under the sheets but the beds were all lit up and …’

‘Whoa whoa,’ said the White Rabbit. ‘You’re beginning to lose me. Where did these children come from all of a sudden?’

‘From Gosh.’

‘From a place called Gosh? How wonderful.’ The White Rabbit chuckled.


‘And the nurses began to jitterbug. A jitterbug,’ said Alice briskly, in her best school mistress voice, ‘is an old-fashioned dance.’

‘Ah,’ said the Rabbit. ‘And there I was thinking it was the dragonfly’s first cousin once removed.  Did the nurses too come from the land of Gosh?’

‘Of course!  Then Mary Poppins flew in and chased the nightmare creatures away.’

‘And you’re sure you didn’t drink from the glass that said ‘Drink me’?’ asked the White Rabbit kindly.


‘Or eat the cake that said ‘Eat me’?’

‘What cake?’

‘Never mind. Continue with your fantasy.’

‘Mr Bean was there, playing with the London Symphony Orchestra.’

‘Playing what, exactly?’

‘He played the piano with an umbrella.’

‘How versatile. And who else?’

‘Well the Queen, of course.’

‘Her Majesty appeared in your fantasy? Well fancy that. And I suppose she fell down the rabbit hole – ah, travelled at speed from the mouth of the Thames on the back of the dragonfly?’

‘No, she parachuted into the arena with James Bond. Why are you looking at me like that?’

‘No reason at all, young Alice.’

‘And then … ‘ Alice heaved a big sigh. ‘Then … there was a woman in a car with a child. And a house, and soap operas and the weather forecast. And young people running in a circle with hoops – travelling on the underground – and snips from films – and talking about my generation and CND and I’m forever blowing bubbles from West Ham football club and turnip-heads on pogo sticks. Why are you patting me on the head?’

‘No reason at all.’ The White Rabbit smiled. ‘What were you doing meanwhile?’

‘I was … ‘ Alice’s eyes began to shine. ‘I was dancing with them, wearing these crazy clothes, jumping up and down and kicking and texting.’

‘”Texting”?  Explain please.’

‘We were representing social media and the younger generation! Keep up, grandad!’

‘I beg your pardon young lady?’

‘Some people think I’m bonkers, but I just think I’m free! They will not conform us! We will be victorious! It was a love story you see.’

‘Indeed,’ said the White Rabbit politely. ‘But … forgive me … where did the films come in?’

‘Don’t ask ridiculous questions. White Rabbit, do you know who Sir Tim Berners-Lee is?’

‘Should I?’

‘NBC thought he was a football player.’

‘Ah. And they also thought Isambard Kingdom Brunel was Abraham Lincoln.’ The White Rabbit stroked his chin.

‘Then all of a sudden …’ Alice dropped her voice to a whisper. ‘There was total quiet. Just a heartbeat. The sun rose, and this little boy appeared, and there were these people moving and swaying and reaching up to the sky and down to touch the ground and the lady sang “Abide with Me”.’

Akram Khan dance company

Alice closed her eyes. ‘Do you know the meaning of the word sublime, White Rabbit?’

‘I thought I did,’ said the White Rabbit gravely.

‘They were all in red, like flames beneath the setting sun. And the child and the man, the man rejects the child but the child comes to the man and the man hugs the child and he reaches right up to the sky.’

‘And what was the meaning … oh, never mind,’ said the White Rabbit.

Alice opened her eyes again and there were tears in them. ‘And then … and then … the bookmakers negated all the bets … they called her Betty to keep the secret … like a flower, with each petal representing a country, and when they were lit, the petals rose up together into the air to form a vertical cauldron, and it was the best kept secret in the entire world.’

Alice turned to look at the White Rabbit, and she said, ‘Why Rabbit, you have tears in your eyes? Why is that?’

The White Rabbit shook his head slowly and said, ‘My dear I have no idea. I did not understand one word of what you were talking about, but I wish …’ He paused.

‘You wish what?’

‘I wish I had been there,’ said the Rabbit, and gave the little girl a hug.

(The Collector’s Library)

Shakespeare surrounded

What with the BBC2 four-part series The Hollow Crown, Mark Rylance as Richard III at the Globe and Simon Russell Beale as Timon of Athens at the National, Shakespeare: staging the world at the British Museum and reports of the opening ceremony of the Olympics being based on The Tempest, Shakespeare has us thoroughly surrounded.

(And that’s not forgetting the RSC in Stratford, and recently at the Roundhouse.)


Henry V (Tom Hiddleston), Richard II (Ben Whishaw) & Henry IV both parts (Jeremy Irons)

The Hollow Crown,
which finished last night with Henry V, was a magnificent feast of austerely visual splendour and featured the best actors in the country – including SRB as Falstaff.

(Please, BBC, make more of them. Can I put in a plea for Measure for Measure in particular?)


Mark Rylance was a comparatively matter-of-fact, even low-key Richard at the Globe, especially by comparison (odious but inevitable) with the flashier Kevin Spacey and the riveting Antony Sher.

Meanwhile the critics made much of the timeliness of the National’s Timon with its modern setting featuring the Occupy movement and the National Gallery, where Timon the benefactor had a room named after him. Personally while I would travel the world to see SRB I could see why Timon is so rarely performed. It has none of the subtlety and complexity of Shakespeare’s usual characterisation – Timon goes from beaming benefactor to raging misanthrope in the flick of an eyelid.

He is not even the most interesting character in the play – that honour belongs surely to the ‘sceptics’ cynic’ Apemantus, ‘a philosopher’. Or even, as played by Deborah Findlay, Timon’s steward/PA Flavia. At least the gender swap of some of the characters in Timon, of which Flavia was one (Flavius in the original), which made perfect sense, made up in a small way for the all-male Richard.


Shakespeare: staging the world at the British Museum might more appropriately be called Shakespeare’s London, or even Shakespeare’s Venice. Not surprisingly perhaps it’s an exhibition about objects rather than performance, the most remarkable of which, for me, was an original piece of writing in Shakespeare’s hand taken from The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore (sic):

Shakespeare’s handwriting?

Otherwise I have to admit for thrill value the exhibition in no way matches up to its YouTube promotional trailer, which has the Roman army marching across the Millennium Bridge and Othello carrying the dead body of Desdemona through the 21st century streets of the West End of London.


 Forward to the past

In my lectures I draw attention to the fact that when modern theatre appears to reinvent itself it is very often actually harping back to the ideas and the environments of centuries ago. ‘Site specific’ theatre was the only kind of theatre available in the middle ages for instance. Now, in addition to the replica New Globe on Bankside and the Rose Theatre in Kingston, The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford recently underwent a complete transformation in order to replace the unfashionable vastness of the 1930s pros arch shape with the far more intimate thrust stage design modelled on the 400 year old Elizabethan playhouse.

There has been, ever since the discovery of the foundations of the Rose Theatre on Bankside in 1989, a resurgence of interest in theatre history in London. Four years ago Museum of London archeologists uncovered the foundations of England’s first ever playhouse, The Theatre, built by James Burbage in Shoreditch in 1576.


The Theatre 2008

The site was being excavated before construction began to build a new theatre for the Tower Theatre Company. So I went along at the weekend to see how the new theatre was coming along and saw this:

The Theatre 2012

The Theatre 2012

Just a hoarding, with pictures the only indication of what lies behind it. Peeking through a tiny hole all I could see was rubble – no sign of any new building or of any ancient foundations. If anyone reading this has any information on what’s going on (or not going on) I’d be very interested to hear about it.

I also went looking for the newly-discovered foundations of The Curtain theatre, built the year after The Theatre and just around the corner from it in Shoreditch. Again, nothing to see. All hidden among buildings and just a plaque on the wall.

Still the encouraging thing is that these sites are being excavated and, hopefully, preserved. Shakespeare lives on.

We may not rejoice in our weather in London, but in many other ways we are the luckiest people in the world.

Chariots of Fire

CHARIOTS OF FIRE, the play-of-the-film, won rave reviews when it opened at Hampstead Theatre. Now it’s running at a totally reconfigured Gielgud Theatre in the West End. A revolving stage is encircled by a running track that runs right through the stalls. And a few – not very privileged – audience members are seated behind the stage where the backdrop used to be.

The film, which won umpteen Oscars, is now over thirty years old, I discovered to my dismay. It was the idea of its director Hugh Hudson to produce the play of the film in Olympic year, and a great idea it is too. But how do you reproduce a story about Olympic runners on stage?

The answer, as directed by Edward Hall, is very imaginatively. Around twenty young men, and some women, spend a good deal of the play running full pelt around an awkward running track, occasionally switching direction sharply and at full speed and weaving in and out of each other with fantastic deftness. At one point Tam Williams, playing Lord Lynley, jumps – not once but several times – over a hurdle on which are perched two glasses of champagne. He’s never missed.

But I couldn’t help thinking – why do this? The story of the fiercely competitive Harold Abrahams and the profoundly devout Eric Liddell, who refused to run on a Sunday because of his religious beliefs, is a good one and worth the retelling. But by sticking so closely to the film it got a bit lost in translation. The characters tended to merge into one another – none of them, bar the two leads, was clearly identifiable. The perhaps most interesting character, Abraham’s coach, who was frowned on in the world of ‘gentlemanly’ amateurism, was under-written.

What was interesting was to see patriotic songs such as ‘Jerusalem’ sung without a hint of irony. Something that could only take place in the year of the  Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics.