Reviewed: Peter and Alice at the Noel Coward Theatre

Child’s play.

Peter and Alice can’t escape their shadows. Wherever they go, these insubstantial versions of them hover just behind, never changing. It’s enough to drive anybody mad, this constant flickering presence in the corner of the eye. The worst part? Their shadows are arguably more real and certainly more famous than they are.

Peter, you see, is Peter Llewelyn Davies, and Alice is Alice Liddell Hargreaves, but we know them better as Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, or their creators’ inspiration for those characters. Portrayed on stage in John Logan’s new play by Ben Whishaw and Judi Dench, they are two tortured individuals struggling with unlooked-for, inherited fame and overpowering nostalgia. They meet in 1932, when Alice is 80 and Peter 35, behind the scenes at the opening of a Lewis Carroll exhibition. The mutual reminiscence that follows is played out for the audience partly through the intense exchanges between the two protagonists, and partly in a pantomime-style staging that actually does involve a Peter Pan in green tights flying across the stage and an Alice who pops up through a trapdoor, all pinny and insatiable curiosity.

At its heart, this play is a meditation on fame and immortality. Peter and Alice are united by the experience of having their childhood imaginings shared with the world by J M Barrie and Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll). Dench is quietly captivating as she evokes golden afternoons by the river in Oxford, bees buzzing, when Dodgson first made her his heroine. Whishaw’s character, more overtly jaded and damaged by life since Neverland, nevertheless at times recalls his youth when Barrie made him fly with something approaching ecstasy. But, as befits such Arcadian stories, death very quickly enters stage right – Peter’s father, mother and brothers are all killed by illness, war and melancholy, as are Alice’s sons and husband.

Logan’s script is strongest when it forces you to question the authors’ motives. Both Dench and Whishaw manage to imply, with the lightest possible gestures, that their respective relationships with Dodgson and Barrie were less than idyllic, perhaps even sinister. But such is the charm of Michael Grandage’s production that you find yourself able to forgive them almost anything – when the two authors, replete with Victorian frock coats and cravats, waltz together in the childhood paradise they created, it is impossible not to let out a giggle. By the end, one is left feeling that neither Peter nor Alice, the products of arguably the most famously perfect childhoods known, has been able to grow up. As Peter says, voice laced with bitterness: “Who would be immortal?” Alice, voicing every adult’s unspoken preference for her childhood self, replies: “What child thinks he isn’t?”

At the Noël Coward Theatre, London WC2, until 1 June

Judi Dench as Alice and Ben Whishaw as Peter. Photograph: Johan Persson

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem