Friday, 20 January 2012

Finding The Frame.

We've come to the end of the first week of rehearsals for the Alice Project and things seem to be going well. The company have done a huge amount of research into mid-Victorian England as well as looking at the story of the relationship between Charles Dodgson and the real Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christchurch. Unlike last year, where we are early work was focused on choosing which of The Canterbury Tales to dramatise, this year we're spending the first meetings trying to find a structure within which to explore the work.

We could of course offer a simple telling of one of the two stories or - as Disney and Tim Burton have both tried - a kind of amalgamation into one dreamland. However, the more the company have read, the more they've been interested in Alice's own story and seem keen to bring in some biographical material, either to shed light on the fictional stories or because it in itself seems to be a fascinating and complicated tale of forbidden love and discretion. There is of course huge speculation both in our research and discussions as to the nature of Carroll and Alice's friendship, but I think trying to explore morality is a red herring for us, better to let the audience decide.

Talking with Tina towards this afternoon we began to see that photography could play a vital part in the play. Lewis Carroll (Dodgson used this name when engaged in his artistic, non-University activities) was a pioneer of the form and his initial friendship with the Liddell came about through his desire to photograph them.

Carroll was a young man in his mid twenties when he acquired his first camera and over the next thirty years he took thousands of portraits mostly of renowned acquaintances and, of course, young girls. Taking photos, in these early days, required a methodological patience and concentration. Materials were expensive and attention was needed to mix the chemicals, ensure the light and time the process. No doubt to the child subjects of his work Carroll appeared like a magician.

There's a sense of claustrophobia to this, of rigorous order and control - quite in keeping with his role as an applied mathematician. Carroll costumed his subjects, arranged poses, often recreating scenes from popular poetry or exotic myth. Arguably the most famous of these is the seven year old Alice dressed as the Beggar Maid from Tennyson's poem of the same name. Inevitably the children were cast in stories of his own choosing.

Perhaps though it was through these tableau that Dodgson, as Carroll, found escape from the cloying monastic, masculine, rituals of Oxford life. They offered a window into a parallel world of purity, chivalry and romance and just as the Alice stories can be read as a child's vision of the coded patterns of academic life, so these photographs can be seen as an attempt to reach beyond pure equations and rational language to discover a different, visual sense of perfect representation. Perhaps the best way for us to see the story is as a staged set of moments frozen in time?


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