The phrase “off with your head” means something real in Palestine.
In the classic Lewis Carroll story, Alice fell down a rabbit hole and saw a world of talking animals, fantastic creatures, and a queen’s kingdom of playing cards. She drank a mysterious potion to fit through small doors, ate cake to cry a river of tears, and discovered the power of the caterpillar’s mushroom. For well over a century, Carroll’s imaginative world invited children to enter a wonderland of their own where their logic empowered more imagination and instilled rebellion against the illogical petty kingdoms of adults.
In Jenin’s Freedom Theatre, the acting school’s production of Alice in Wonderland opened to a full house of appreciative audiences on January 23rd. The Palestinian rendition preserves the European heritage of the production with a twist. The play is a feast of circus acts, odd masks, aerial silk, flying actors, Rock’n Roll, drum beats, white face, flying colours, crawling creatures, head-off-ing contraptions, modern dance, and maniacal laughters. With every moment, danger looms as actors run across and around the stage, fly to the ceiling, and hide in mid air. Often, the speed of the production overwhelms logic creating a bizarre alternate universe.
Director Juliano Mer-Khamis created a production that functions on two levels: the first challenges traditional aspects of camp life and the second is an overt critique of the Israeli occupation. The play begins with a confused Alice in the midst of the proceedings of an arranged marriage. Unable to refuse her potential husband, she quietly submits as the parents celebrate in a mechanical, yet absurd fashion. In the midst of the bizarrely staged ritual, she takes an unidentified drink from a rabbit and travels to a nightmarish wonderland where an oppressed population identify her as their saviour. Alice must convince the people of Wonderland that she is not the awaited one and at the same time, they must realize their capacity to enact their own revolution against the dictatorship of the Red Queen. The production both questions the logic of Alice’s potential marriage and provokes the population to rise against the oppressor.
To accomplish these two overarching purposes, Mer-Khamis presents an Alice who struggles to actualize her agency and a population constantly in fear of the possibility of being executed and remade into hats. The director pushes the boundaries of safety throughout the eighty minute production by creating a seemingly unsafe environment where Alice swings in the air and the caterpillar slides expertly on aerial silk. The stage speedily revolves numerous times making loud noises like an out of control train. Stage fights, at times, appear to be physically painful to the actors. At the same time, this re-imagined wonderland oozes with sensuality, bright colours, singing actors, and cha cha cha! The highly physicalized characters fill the stage in an overwhelming combination which tackles the senses and creates a kinesthetic response in the viewing audience. Ultimately, the production manifests Wonderland as a nightmarish reality contradicting traditional understanding of the Carroll classic. Carroll’s tale ends with Alice running off to tea as her older sister imagines Alice’s growth into womanhood and old age. Jenin’s Alice, having just witnessed a revolution, concludes her journey by refusing to marry and a promise to live out her life.
This powerful production is conceptually bold and visually stimulating. It succeeds at communicating its message of a people’s revolution, yet there is a palpable tension between its narrative and its aesthetic. Alice’s antagonist is the sensual red queen of hearts who represents both the tyranny of the oppressor and the master of a world of desire. The queen dances in high heels, sings about love, straddles poles, and swings down rails. By giving the dictator a taste of her own medicine, the people of Wonderland turn this sensual creature into a hat! One must ask whether Mer-Khamis’s choice to create this sensual wonderland agrees with his purpose of encouraging both personal and national liberation. If it does, then we must also ask: Are the oppressors in this production the Israeli occupiers, the camp’s traditionalists, or both? The play begins and ends with the marriage story signaling a clear intention to tackle the issue of Alice’s right to free choice, meanwhile, the chaotic Wonderland combines a vision of an existing violent occupation and an active world of forbidden desire. The givens of the production suggest that Alice must imagine a people’s revolution in her dreams and exercise the right to choose in real life.
The production exposes the theatre”s unavoidable identity crisis, giving every part of it makers space on the stage. Located in the Jenin refugee camp, the Freedom Theatre’s stage space can be likened to a thoroughly European avant guard black box theatre. It operates with multiple Western and Arab funding sources, a clear tilt towards a Western aesthetic, and the aid of a number of foreign volunteers and visitors. The theatre has also been frequently challenged by local elements in the camp since its recent reincarnation, despite its declared principles of grassroots Palestinian activism through its Palestinian founders and local artists. This tension between foreign and local influences can best be seen in the combination of the European story, the Palestinian team of artists, and the Western concert-like aesthetic of production, which occasionally resembles the style of the famed Rocky Horror Picture Show. It is encapsulated in the character of the White Queen, a female figure trapped in tight white fabric in the far corner of the stage. She moves and dances under the fabric, changing like a chameleon as the lighting changes colour and the body expertly expresses the pain of imprisonment. We see every part of her completely covered up body moving in the background. During the play, one wonders at the boldness of this detailed exploration of the female body in the Jenin refugee camp only to find out that a European female played the part, making one wonder if it was too provocative for a Palestinian actress to play.
The Freedom Theatre and its daring production are both empowering and thought provoking. The power of the production lies at the intersection of the personal and the political. Alice in Wonderland challenged its young actors on a technical level, forcing them to learn everything from circus acts, to dance moves, to an extremely physical acting style. This dangerland allowed them to re-imagine themselves into fantastical avatars from animals to otherworldly creatures. They also enacted a much needed revolution. Whether reality and dreamland can converge offstage remains to be seen, however, there is no doubt that the Freedom Theatre and its Alice are both undeniably here.
Samer al Saber is doing his dissertation on Palestinian theatre. Samer has been in Palestine the last 6 months.