Director and Writer: Kate Prince
Commissioned to show alongside The Royal Ballet’s Alice in Wonderland, ZooNation’s The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is the perfect companion piece to the now-classic ballet. As director, Kate Prince’s dance merges street and hip-hip with the anarchic feel of Lewis Carroll’s novel.
We meet Ernest, a psychotherapist who is starting a new job. Working at the Institute for Extremely Normal Behaviour, Ernest is anxious to make a good first impression. Designed by Ben Stones, the Institute is a grey, numbing place – devoid of colour and excitement. Normal here reads as bland, uneventful – even conformist. Ernest’s challenge is to reform some newly-admitted patients, who claim to be from a place called Wonderland. He has one month to complete his task.
Holding a therapy session, Ernest (played by Tommy Franzen) isn’t quite prepared for what he finds. The Wonderland patients tumble into the session, brimming with energy. The Institute, it is clear, has had little effect on them so far. Ernest struggles to maintain control of the room.
Part of the commission was for ZooNation to explore mental health issues, and The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party beautifully illustrates the individual struggles of Lewis Carroll’s characters. The March Hare (a brilliant Bradley Charles) is unable to find love; Alice herself (a punk-ish energy from Kayla Lomas-Kirton) is dealing with an eating disorder. Ernest identifies their issues quickly, but finds himself asking whether naming the problem is enough. He begins to think beyond the Institute’s fanaticism for normality. What if there is no normal? What if Wonderland really exists?
Prince’s dance language clearly delineates each character. We have hip-hop energy from The White Rabbit (Jaih Betote), the Ska influence of a fabulous Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee (Rowen Hawkins, Manny Tsakanika) and the Queen of Hearts wowing us with her grasp of ballroom (a commanding performance from the late Teneisha Bonner). By blending dance styles, Prince reminds us that one voice does not speak for everyone.
Right at the centre of the dance is of course, The Mad Hatter. Played by Isaac Baptiste, The Hatter is a calm, reassuring presence. In a performance loaded with charisma, Baptiste leads the story through its feverish beginning, clearing the way through conflict, to a resolution. He is the therapist Ernest longs to be.
In narrating their own stories, the characters leap out from the page. Being filmed, this production also gives us the advantage of getting up close to these performances. There is a psychological intensity to The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party that reminds us that Carroll’s work was not only whimsical; it had a darker edge that ran against the cosy narrative of traditional children’s fiction. There is madness, there is loss, and there is no easy answer to either.
Accompanying this extraordinary range of contemporary dance, The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is filled with music. Written by DJ Walde and Josh Cohen, we move from original songs, to pulsating beats that fill the theatre. Walde and Cohen mix and layer styles so that the music becomes another character, making this Tea Party a heady, exhilarating experience.
Finding something new in Carroll’s text is a challenge. The dance looks beyond the curious tropes – the fretful Rabbit, the grinning Cheshire Cat – into what Carroll could not explicitly say, but instead inferred. Victorian England was its own Institute for Extremely Normal Behaviour, and any deviation from centre was regarded with great suspicion. In this suffocating atmosphere, Carroll wrote about the individual. Bizarre, contradictory and by definition, one of a kind. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party not only explores the need for individualistic expression, but the role imagination has to play in our lives. It calls for a safer, kinder space; living without fear or judgement. In Carroll’s time, as much as our own, it’s a message that bears repeating.
Available here until 14 August 2020