Kendall Jenner Takes On Fall Fashion as Alice in Wonderland

“The two Alices are not books for children,” Virginia Woolf wrote in 1939. “They are the only books in which we become children.” Generations of young readers might take issue with the first part of Woolf’s statement, but there’s no question that Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass hold a singular power to send us tumbling down the rabbit hole into the delights and terrors of childhood. That—not to mention the surreal wit and verbal acrobatics—may be the key to their enduring appeal 150 years after the first Alice book was published. The anniversary is being marked around the world by museum exhibitions, scholarly conferences, and theatrical productions, most notably wonder.land (pronounced “wonder-dot-land”), a visually extravagant new musical adaptation opening at London’s National Theatre that brings Carroll into the Internet age. Staged by the National’s protean artistic director, Rufus Norris—whose recent productions there include David Hare’s adaptation of Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Everyman, with Chiwetel Ejiofor—with songs by Blur and Gorillaz front man Damon Albarn, it promises to be a heady finale to Alice’s birthday bash. “This story—and its characters—is hugely imprinted on our collective cultural memory,” Norris says. “It has something very potent, albeit elusive—it slips away like the White Rabbit.”

Carroll’s stories have been brought to the stage many times over the years, from an 1886 West End musical to a 1970 avant-garde production directed by Andre Gregory (and documented by Richard Avedon), a 1982 rock musical starring Meryl Streep, and a haunting 2012 immersive theater piece, Then She Fell. That may be why, when Alex Poots, then the head of the Manchester International Festival, suggested that Norris and Albarn, who had worked together on the 2011 opera Dr. Dee, collaborate on a new Alice, Norris was skeptical. When he met with Albarn and the playwright Moira Buffini, he recalls, “I asked, ‘How are we going to start this, if we are going to start this?’ Damon took his phone out of his pocket, pointed to the screen, and said, ‘That is the rabbit hole.’ And immediately all three of us went, OK, got it.”

“What I found most challenging was translating Alice into a narrative structure without losing its surreal weirdness,” says Buffini, whose work includes Handbagged and the 2011 screen version of Jane Eyre. Her solution was to make the play about a young girl’s quest to find out who she is. The girl in question is a mixed-race fourteen-year-old named Aly (the charming Lois Chimimba), who lives in a dismal council estate with her mother (Golda Rosheuvel) and baby brother, both of whom she resents. Blaming herself for her parents’ separation and generally alienated and unhappy, she finds solace in the candy-colored world of an online game called wonder.land, where she creates an avatar called Alice (Carly Bawden), who, unlike herself, is tall and blonde. As she goes deeper into wonder
.land—created with trippy élan by set designer Rae Smith, costume designer Katrina Lindsay, and digital-projection team 59 Productions—she encounters reimagined versions of such iconic Carroll inventions as the White Rabbit, the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, and Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Soon, her real life and the world of wonder.land start to blend together, and her mother emerges as the White Queen, her gambling-addicted father (Paul Hilton) as the Mad Hatter, and her evil school headmistress (Anna Francolini, in a deliciously campy turn) as the Red Queen. In the end, she realizes that all the qualities with which she endowed her avatar—curiosity, boldness, self-reliance—were ones that she already possessed.

For the 25-year-old Chimimba, who is of mixed Scottish and Malawian descent and got into performing because she wanted to be a pop star like her idol Britney Spears, her character’s dilemma rings true. “I look back at me at fourteen,” she says, “and I was always the chubby one. I was the only mixed-race one. And if someone makes comments about that when you’re that age, it can really make you go into your shell.” Chimimba found her escape in acting and dancing classes. “It was so fun to pretend to be different kinds of people and behave in ways that you would never behave in the real world,” she says, “and there was no judgment. I can understand why Wonderland is so exciting for Aly.”

When the show premiered at the Manchester International Festival last summer, it was met with enthusiastic crowds, though the creators still considered it a work in progress. Since then, they have been working to revamp the show—beefing up Aly’s backstory, streamlining the narrative, and integrating the sets and projections more seamlessly with the human actors. Most significant, Albarn has reconceived much of the music to give it more of the melodically infectious energy of his work with Blur.

For Norris, pulling the show apart and putting it back together comes with the job. “None of us quite knows where it’s going to end up,” he says, “but we’re going to bust a gut to make sure that it’s someplace wonderful.”

Or, as the Red Queen tells Alice in Through the Looking- Glass, proving that Wonderland and musical theater have a lot in common: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

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