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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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge