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Under the looking glass

Jonathan Croall looks forward to a play about Alice and Lewis Carroll.

What I like best of all is to have two hours of leisure time before me, one child to be photographed, and no restrictions as to costume!" Thus wrote C L Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, to the mother of a young girl he wished to photograph. But what was this shy Oxford mathematics don doing taking pictures of little girls wearing little or nothing? What kind of relationship did the creator of the world-famous Alice stories have with the real girl who inspired them? What should we see as the true nature of Carroll's sexuality?

These are the kind of questions raised - but not directly answered - by Christopher Hampton's new play Alice's Adventures Under Ground, which opens next week at the National Theatre. It's a piece that interweaves some of the best-known episodes of the Alice stories with scenes that explore the curious real-life friendship between Dodgson (played by Michael Maloney) and Alice Liddell.

The show is directed by the celebrated American choreographer Martha Clarke, who over the last two years or so has collaborated with Hampton in developing the text through workshops. During rehearsals she talked about her approach, her attempt to unravel the darker side of Carroll's personality, and her aim of providing a "keyhole view" of Victorian life.

"I see the play as being about sexual repression", she said. "Carroll was a lovable but complicated man. Oxford was his cocoon: he never had an emotional relationship with an adult in his whole life. I think he was in love with Alice. She was his muse. So I'm trying to show that relationship as the source of his creativity".

As material for the text, she and Christopher Hampton have used Carroll's diaries and letters - written to young girls, their parents and other adults - as well as the classic Alice tales. She's also read studies of Carroll's personality, both Freudian and Jungian. The result is a richly textured piece, full of ambiguity and suggestion, that catches the enigmatic quality of Carroll's imagination as well as the pathos of his emotional difficulties.

"I'm trying to come in at different angles to the material in order to find the reality", Martha Clarke said. "People may come expecting a Tenniel kind of atmosphere, but they're not going to get it. I think you have to subvert the text in order to satisfy the demands of theatre".

There is a charged element in some of the scenes between Alice and Carroll, which powerfully suggest the repressed and ambivalent nature of the writer's feelings towards the young girl. But there are also hints that the Alice who appears at one stage dressed as a beggar girl, "her clothes artfully distressed and tattered", is not as innocent as we might think.

The National has decided that the play is not to be recommended for children under 12. Yet the part of Alice is being played by a nine-year-old, Sasha Hanau, who first began to experiment with the role when she was six. So how has she coped with the discussions that have taken place during rehearsals?

"She's very familiar with the material, and uncannily sophisticated", Clarke explained. "Even when we're talking with the actors about sexual repression or the erotic elements in the play, she'll stay in the room. She's got a kind of protection about her".

But it may not be only the sexual element that makes Alice's Adventures Under Ground potentially unsuitable for younger children. Many of the well-known scenes out of Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass that feature in the play have a potentially disturbing quality, in which Alice is intimidated, bullied and provoked.

Clarke, who seems to relish tackling dark, enigmatic figures - Kafka, Freud and Hieronymous Bosch have all featured in her work recently - points out, for example, how menacing Tweedledum and Tweedledee can seem. "But I'm trying to get a balance between humour, despair and menace".

Alice's Adventures Under Ground opens in the Cottesloe Theatre on November 8. Box Office 071-928 2252.

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