wonder.land, currently running at the National Theatre, joins the recent army of plays attempting to tackle the internet and all the issues it raises, in this instance by appropriating Lewis Carroll’s widely beloved story and re-inventing it for the digital age. The results are questionable, with this collaboration between director Rufus Norris, musician Damon Albarn and playwright Moira Buffini offering a visually sumptuous experience, but one crammed with too many ideas and too little substance.
This re-telling of Carroll’s classic sees angst-ridden teenager, Aly (Lois Chimimba), delve into the online world of wonder.land as an escape from relentless school bullies and a family breakdown. She creates an avatar in order to enter the world, a persona as far from her own as possible manifested in the impeccable blonde, blue frock-wearing and light-skinned Alice (Carly Bawden). There she meets other souls as lost as she – the Dodo, the Mock Turtle, Dum and Dee – other youngsters driven from their unhappy lives into an online fantasy world where they can find friendship.
However, everything Aly has created in this virtual safe-space is threatened when the Aly’s domineering headmistress, Ms Manxome (the brilliant Anna Francolini), confiscates her phone and finds herself sucked into the game. This leads to a clash between the two for rights of ownership over avatar Alice, and eventually a fully-fledged battle with everything from pyrotechnics to zombies – a fight scene which, after a long and languid first half of the show, can only be described as the theatrical equivalent of dropping acid.
Ultimately the show ends up feeling clumsy and awkward in its thinly veiled attempt to hide the didactic and unoriginal message at its core. Many of the scenes are overly-long and feel saggy without any drama or intrigue to hold them up, and some bits are plain boring. Albarn and Buffini’s respective music and lyrics rarely move the story forward, instead labouring over the same ideas far longer than even the youngest of audience members need to get on board with what’s what. However, the most frustrating element is the show’s unrelenting hammering home of its message about self-acceptance – an important message of course, but one that loses all potency when delivered with so little sophistication, so many times.
A nod must be given to the ambition of the show in attempting to render the online world on stage, with 59 Production’s beautiful and hypnotic projections certainly helping the cause. As our lives become increasingly shaped by our involvement with the digital world, it is crucial that we develop a theatrical language for discussing issues the issues wonder.land touches on, from identity to anonymity, cyber-bullying and privacy.
Indeed, wonder.land is designed to speak to a young audience who have grown up with iPads and smartphones in their hands from their earliest years; an audience whose very experience of the world is radically different to that of previous generations, thanks to the rapidity of change even in the last decade; a generation whose entire world view has been shaped by the internet in a way arguably beyond our comprehension.
And what an exciting thing it would be to do so – to really grasp what it is that that very audience is feeling and experiencing – and alongside that give the rest of us a glimpse. Except that this attempt to ‘get down with the kids’ is wonder.land’s fatal flaw: it feels patronising and rather out of touch, like your Grandad learning to text and then turning around to lecture you on your incorrect the use of the term ‘LOL’. Indeed, including occasional references to hashtags, and throwing in slightly outdated teenage vernacular like “epic”, makes for slightly cringe-inducing watching.
wonder.land misses its incredible opportunity to really meet its young audience on a level and use the National’s huge resources to capture their world and say something pertinent and new about it. While Norris’s production offers plenty of eye candy for audiences young and old, Aly’s feels like a story we’ve heard before, and Alice in Wonderland’s one that suffers for its reinvention.
wonder.land is playing at the National Theatre until 30 April 2016. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mögenburg.