The Gym, The Arts Centre, Worcester Boulevard, Christchurch

03/05/2018 - 19/05/2018

Production Details

Tom Waits opera for Christchurch: “adult songs for children, or children’s songs for adults”.

“This is kinda Lewis Carroll… You know he fell on the ice of a pond and he broke his watch one day and he never got it fixed. And he said, that’s what happened to him. He said, as long as his watch was broken he could always stay in this world you know, that he invented for him and for her, so…” – Tom Waits 

Childhood is the paradise we all appear to have lost, but where none of us has actually ever been. The yearning for this lost wonderland is expressed in Lewis Carroll‘s Alice tales and in the popular success that they still have so many years later. But the childish fantasies that we find here also harbour beneath all their alluring whimsy the bitter cruelties that are part of our childhood experience, which we tend to erase from our memories. In Robert Wilson‘s and Tom Waits‘ Alice these Victorian fantasies are replayed as bittersweet realities of the actual lives of the author Charles Dodgson and his muse Alice and are revealed as still being alive today in our own minds. 

Alice is one of three works that emerged from a successful collaboration between Waits and renowned theatre director Wilson. Free Theatre’s New Zealand première last year of the pair’s work The Black Rider: the casting of magic bullets (co-created with William S. Burroughs)led to a sell-out opening season and a successful return season for the Christchurch Arts Festival. As a follow-up, Free Theatre’s Alice will work from the images and music created by Wilson and Waits and reimagine them in the context of contemporary Christchurch.

Director Peter Falkenberg expects Alice to provide audiences with unexpected but strangely relatable experiences of childhood. He says that Alice combines and mixes two stories, “one is about the Victorian fun fair Wonderland with its surface innocence; the other is about Charles Dodgson, the inhibited and speech impaired photographer, clergyman and mathematician at Christ Church College Oxford and his erotic dream life”. The fun fair shows its darker underside and reveals a surreal freak show. Tom Waits called it a “fever dream” or a “time poem” with “adult songs for children, or children’s songs for adults”. The songs went on to form one of Waits’ most beloved albums, also titled ‘Alice’.

Engaging with the underlying themes of the work, the set, designed by Stuart Lloyd-Harris is also inspired by French illusionist and early film pioneer Georges Méliès. The company has presented a diversity of exciting environments for productions in The Gym, including Kafka’s Amerika, Footprints/Tapuwae, Frankenstein and The Black Rider, leading to a reputation for unusual and exciting experiences for local audiences. Alice will continue to build this reputation.

This is the first of two major music-theatre works being developed and presented by the company this year in The Gym. In August, the next iteration of an ongoing project inspired by Argentinian-German composer Mauricio Kagel will see the return of Free Theatre collaborators composer Gao Ping and conductor Hamish McKeich. Producer George Parker says these projects are designed to push the usual boundaries between music and theatre, “we want to keep offering Christchurch audiences new, fresh and contemporary experiences in the Arts Centre to show what is possible in the new city”.

The Gym, Christchurch Arts Centre, 28 Worcester Boulevard
Wednesday May 2, 8pm (Schools Performance)
3 – 19 May 2018, 8pm
Earlybird Tickets: Full Wage $35. Concession: $18. Group Discounts available.
Online Bookings Essential.

Alice is presented with the support the Christchurch Arts Centre, Phantom Billstickers, RDU, Mainland Foundation and Pub Charity.

To follow the development of Free Theatre’s new work, regular updates will be provided on their website ( )and social media pages including:
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Theatre , Musical ,

Evocative, intelligent and effective

Review by Erin Harrington 04th May 2018

Free Theatre’s production of Alice takes as its starting point the peculiar relationship between mathematician, photographer and clergyman Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) and young Alice Tidwell, the girl who was his favourite photographic subject and who became the heroine of his books Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Like Free Theatre’s recent production of The Black Rider, Alice was originally a collaboration between theatre director Robert Wilson and musician Tom Waits, here joined by librettist Paul Schmidt, and was originally commissioned by Thalia Theater Hamburg in the early 1990s.

Alice, directed here by Peter Falkenberg,is interested in the nature of time, memory and fantasy. How can we hold onto fond childhood memories and desires that possibly never existed? This adaptation embraces the episodic, phantasmagoric nature of its literary sources, which in turn give the impression of a series of photographic or cinematic snapshots. We swing from scenes that feel like they are being played out underwater, to musical interludes that move between maudlin, yearning ballads and sea shanties that are the aural equivalent of peaty whisky and broken glass. It often has a languid dream-like quality that encompasses both the distorted, uncanny nature of Wonderland and Free Theatre’s interest in German expressionism and modes of performance that can perhaps be sometimes described as alienating or blurring the boundaries of ‘traditional’ modes of acting.

It’s an engrossing production with some delightful and truly satisfying moments: Alice (Emma Johnston) shrinks and falls down the rabbit hole; The Mad Hatter (Chris Reddington) reveals a door inside a tree; Alice and the White Rabbit (George Parker, who also plays Charles Dodgson and the White Knight) use a looking-glass to reflect a harsh spotlight back onto the audience as we’re subjected to a bone-rattling version of The Jabberwocky; a resigned white sheep (Marian McCurdy) eyerolls her way through a sales pitch; puppets Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Greta Bond) bicker and wave their little umbrellas; the Caterpillar (Pascal Ackermann) wiggles his way down through the set while knocking out a bluesy number about a man with no body.

The production’s emphasis upon Victorian cinematic and photographic technologies asks the audience to consider the aesthetic and philosophical implications of image-making, in particular the manipulation and ‘freezing’ of time. Stuart Lloyd-Harris’s marvellous set and lighting designs also play with the construction of dreams and memory, and the interplay of light and shadow.

We start in an under-saturated sepia-toned space of a photographic studio, which traps dimly-lit Alice, as both three-dimensional person and two-dimensional image, within a collapsible picture frame. The larger playing space, which is exposed as a type of Wonderland, recalls the early silent film studios of cinema pioneer Georges Méliès. Shifts in lighting and a large movable platform create distinct environments for each of the productions episodes. The overall effect is that we are never sure of what is inside or outside, what is the subject or what is the image, or how reality or fantasy are being stitched together. It’s evocative, intelligent and effective.

The band, throughout, are remarkable. Reddington (keys), Reuben Derrick (reeds), Mike Kime (double bass), Heather Webb (guitar and banjo) and Rory Dalley (percussion) weave together a roughly textured, faded musical tapestry. They make saws sing and throw cymbals across the stage; they creak and hiss and warble. It’s broken-down musical architecture that’s held together by cigarette smoke and twine. I’d have happily stayed listening to them all night, and it’s a pity we don’t get to applaud them properly at the end.

It’s clear that these Waits / Wilson collaborations are an ideal fit for Free Theatre’s philosophy and aesthetic project. They are also beautifully suited to the sorts of playing spaces that are able to be created within The Gym at the Christchurch Arts Centre. I hope they will complete the trilogy by undertaking the third of these collaborations, the Wilson and Waits’ adaptation of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck


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