Wonderland, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Presented as part of the Edinburgh International Festival, this new theatrical work from Scots company Vanishing Point makes a tremendous impression, although not necessarily in a good way. It’s difficult to escape the feeling that was the point, however. A meditation on pornography, exploitation and sexual aggression and shame dressed in the skin of a dream-like allusion to Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, it could only have been taken seriously were it at times deeply uncomfortable to watch.
Structurally too, however, it’s a difficult piece to warm to initially. Foregrounded on stage before us we see a young woman – willowy, teenaged and stereotypically Scottish with fresh face and red hair – performing awkwardly before the camera of a low-rent Eastern European pornographer, her striptease hesitant and borderline coerced. Behind the high glass window which splits the stage down the middle, meanwhile, her mother and father silently enjoy a cosy suburban life, until her mum falls asleep and dad logs onto internet chatrooms looking for sadistic sexual kicks, spurred on by his inner voice in a skilfully-played dual role from Paul Thomas Hickey and Owen Whitelaw.
For the first hour of the piece director Matthew Lenton builds the uncomfortable tension with a masterful, slow-moving grace. One of the finest scenes, in fact, is one of the first, as the young woman (Jenny Hulse’s raw, emotionally manhandled and often nude performance truly deserves to be described as courageous) turns the audience’s expectations in upon themselves when faced with Damir Todorovic’s crotch-grabbing, mundanely cruel pornographer and his lens.
Meanwhile, in voiceover and on the giant screen which dominates the living room, her father attempts to coerce Flavia Gusmao’s supposedly Brazilian internet date into humiliating herself, a scenario charged with suppressed violence and defused by the ultimate sense of detachment a broadband connection grants. The sexual politics of the father and daughter’s situations are muddied and unclear, as they so often are in life.
In all honesty, when much of the strong work done in the first sixty minutes seemed to disintegrate into an untidy, exploitative serial killer scenario involving the father seemingly stumbling across his daughter in a cabin in the woods and murdering her, the spell was broken, certainly as far as the audience’s equivocal response suggested. Yet the urge was to discuss every fine detail afterwards, and a detached unpicking of the characters and iconography is kinder to the play, coming with it the realisation that the surface of the darkest looking glass is first crossed not in reality, but in the mind.
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