Lewis Carroll's ill-fated obsession with the prepubescent Alice

Review: Then She Fell.

Then She Fell
Kingsland Ward, Maujer Street, Brooklyn, NYC, Third Rail Projects

In Sleep No More, Punchdrunk's fantastically successful New York-based piece of immersive, site-specific theatre, the fourth wall is located “on the audience's face” - on the masks audience members wear as they lope, wander, and sometimes sprint through the space. But in Third Rail's Then She Fell, co-director and performer Zach Morris tells me, there is no such safety net. “We do away with the fourth wall entirely”, he says, as we sit down for coffee at the cheerily dilapidated Cake Shop on New York's Ludlow Street. “The scene you and I shared, for example...”

The last time I sat face to face with Zach Morris, the circumstances were somewhat different. He was a doctor at the Kingsland Hospital, the sometime setting of Then She Fell, which traces the story of Lewis Carroll's ill-fated obsession with the prepubescent Alice Liddell alongside fragmentary and laudanum-hazy glimpses of Carroll's Wonderland. I was, apparently, the newest orderly at the hospital, playing a rigged card game in order to win an position as the caretaker of the savagely imperious Red Queen. No stage, no masks, no tricks of lighting, no enforced silence, separated us. I was acutely conscious of my inability to compose my face into an expression resembling neutrality, or even normalcy. Morris, as the doctor, asked me my name; I managed to mispronounce it.

 Such an invitation borders on the dangerous. Anything can happen in these exchanges, Morris tells me – and from his litany of show stories, it's apparent nearly everything has. Audience members, when prompted by a wide-eyed Alice whether or not they have ever been in love, might, for example, dominate the scene by unburdening memories of painful relationships past. Morris recounts the tale of one elderly couple who, upon encountering the Mad Hatter (played with mesmerizing exuberance by Elizabeth Carena) and being told to take down dictation for the Hatter's letter to her absent creator, began to squabble over her choice of words, so that the Hatter herself ended up writing Carroll to her audience member's specifications. (For my own part, I ended up rather a forceful presence: the Hatter demanded to know what type of head I had, for which I had a shamefully paltry reply.)

Yet the structure of Then She Fell is far from free-form. Audience members are separated and ushered into different spaces (commanded, by an imperious looking nurse, not to open any closed doors), led in threes, twos, and finally solo into various, increasingly intimate, scenes with Carroll's novels' most famous denizens, and with the tormented Carroll himself. (Not all audience members are allowed to witness all scenes – as I realized with some disappointment, as I spotted the Hatter's tea party taking place in a room I was not permitted to enter). Each audience member's experience, Morris tells me, is structured: though we each view scenes in different orders, in a non-linear fashion, our own emotional arc is tightly choreographed: as we, scene by scene, are invited to develop our own stories of nostalgia and loss. Thus did I follow one of the two Alices (one, a note in the Hatter's room hints, for each side of the looking glass), into a room with an empty mirror frame, through which I served as her reflection. Thus did I follow the White Rabbit into a closet of of freshly-painted white roses, watching him perform a virtuosic – and unsettlingly close by – dance with a butcher's knife. Thus – ultimately – did I piece together these fragments of the Kingsland Ward's take on Wonderland, and invented for them – in the absence of linear narrative – my own story.

That, hints Morris, is precisely the point.

If Sleep No More invites moments of deeply personal connection between actor and audience member, then Then She Fell, despite its more intimate size – only fifteen audience members are invited in per night – offers something entirely more bewildering: at once dangerous and controlled. No less than Alice, whose journey through Wonderland owes something to the dizzying contradictions of Victorian childhood, I balanced the twin demands of freedom and restriction, of the terror of answering open-ended questions and the fear of breaking established rules. Like all audience members, I was given a set of keys – with which to explore the set's many locked boxes and cabinets – but, like a guilty child, sprang back in fear from one writing-desk when  Lewis Carroll appeared in the doorway. This freedom to – as Morris puts it - “play within the paradigm” is at once frightening and exhilarating: a perfect mirror of Alice's own, albeit largely fractured, development through the piece, as her encounters with the Red and White Queens take her on a circuitous journey towards womanhood.

Yet, if Then She Fell falls short in any area, it is the relative paucity of such development. The “arc” of the piece, as Morris sees it, is that of the audience, rather than that of the characters themselves. The Rabbit, the Red Queen, the White Queen, even Alice herself – do not change, but rather invite us to assume Alice's role, to change through our encounters with them. Indeed, Morris suggests, the very nature of Then She Fell  – in which audience members are left alone to explore rooms, or asked personal questions, to piece together the puzzle of Alice's story – asks audience members to bring far more of themselves, of their own experiences, of their own lost loves or thwarted childhoods, than traditional theatre can allow. Here, in this liminal space where our outside lives and our assumed roles converge, neither wholly the fictitious realm of the Kingsland Ward nor wholly the bleak Williamsburg streets outside it, Third Rail has created something utterly strange, magnificently surreal: undoubtedly Wonderland.

Jessy Smith as the White Queen. Photograph: Darial Sneed

Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared in The Spectator, Guernica Daily, Lady Adventurer, and more. In 2012 she won The Spectator's Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency; her first novel is currently on submission.

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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood