Since I began working on the Alice stories I've become acutely aware of the number of signed instructions on the walls of St Mary's, each one designed to ensure no litigious student or visitor can make a claim of 'not having been told so'. Reassuring as they may be, they also offer the promise of a tempting gateway into a parallel logical universe. It's a health and safety Wonderland.
Yesterday in the refectory a sign advertising egg fried rice was accompanied by a warning that the dish may contain eggs.
'Ah' said the catering manager 'just because a dish has eggs in the title, doesn't mean you can automatically assume it has eggs in the ingredients!'
'But why don't you warn us about other dishes?' I asked. 'Surely you should warn that the mushroom soup contains mushrooms or the breaded haddock, haddock?'
'Well we would but mushrooms and haddock are the main ingredients of those dishes. They're not trace. Now if we had rice fried egg, we'd have to warn customers that the dish may contain rice. Do you see?'
Outside in the hall way a single tile from the floor has been removed. A sizable area around the tile has been cordoned off and a large obstructive board, which we all have to walk around, has been put up, warning us to be careful of the uneven floor.
Other recent missives include a whole staff email warning not to put any boxes or other obstacles in corridors rightly pointing out these are off particular danger to the visually impaired and a reminder not to put information on the noticeboards in case students stop to read them; creating unnecessary and potentially dangerous bottlenecks. There is also some talk of getting Drama students to sign a waiver if they wish to appear on stage, underneath the hanging lights, without the statutory hard hats. Slowly every aspect of our conscious thought is being regulated into an appropriate procedure.
As Lewis Carroll understood, and points out time and again in the Alice books, those who use the language of advice often confuse it with the language of authority and can be quick to reinforce a closed logic -sometimes in ludicrous ways. Between the lines of Wonderland and Looking Glass is a gently anarchic message suggesting that rather than unswerving compliance to instruction, we should perhaps stand back, listen careful and take a moment to decide whether or not we agree. The word isn't always God. .
Mark is the Academic Director of the Drama Programmes at St Mary's University in Twickenham. He has worked internationally as a theatre director and educator for the past 15 years, focused mostly on youth, community, and conflict resolution work.
As a lecturer Mark taught at Goldsmiths College, Coventry University and was Head of Performing Arts at Canterbury College prior to joining St Mary’s in 2006.
His Professional directing credits include Henry V (One of US?) and Valhalla for RSC Education; The Wind in the Willows, Jack Cade, The Red, Red Robin for Sevenoaks Playhouse; Tender Souls, The Quality of Mercy and Playhouse Creatures for the Ambassadors Theatre group.
Mark is a director of subVERSE Theatre company for whom has directed fringe premieres of Chief, Dinnertime and OxfamC**t at Theatre 503.
Site specific work includes Purka and Shadow on Icelandic volcanoes and Novocento with students from the University of Genoa.