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Weekend: A stylish fantasy Weekend; Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland is every designer's dream assignment. meets the man behind the RSC's latest production Richard Edmonds.

Perhaps the nearest route to Lewis Carroll and Alice In Wonderland is through the illustrations. And illustrations are very much at the heart of good costume design -- they are the visual frame within which the text of a show makes performances happen.

For Peter McKintosh, the man who has developed ``the look'' of the Royal Shakespeare Company's current production of Alice in Wonderland, the directorial brief was to provide young audiences with a riot of colour -- and McKintosh has done exactly that.

Alice goes to Wonderland in style, and when she jumps through the backdrop into Looking Glass land, the eccentrics who make up Carroll's fantasy world go on parade and they wear McKintosh's splendid costumes to great effect.

In Act One, Alice follows the White Rabbit (fanning himself breathlessly, of course) as he dashes along the corridors of his fairytale world, peopled with extraordinary creatures from Mad Hatters, March Hares, talking cats, dotty duchesses whose babies turn into piglets and a particularly haughty Caterpillar (''who are you?'' -- Alice: ``I hardly know Sir, just at present . . .).

``Alice is a gift -- a designers dream,'' says McKintosh enthusiastically over a very late supper at The Barbican, where Alice opened before its Stratford transfer.

``In fact, I don't know many designers who would really consider turning down Alice.''

When you think of the opportunities to produce gorgeous stage pictures, McKintosh is right. Any designer's drawing board must be filled with playing card kings, queens, and knaves of hearts. Pencils and brushes and felt-tips must certainly have leapt into life confronted with griffons, walruses and carpenters all of whom scamper through Lewis Carroll's narrative. And then there is Humpty Dumpty (a design accomplished wonderfully well by McKintosh, which conveys the slight eeriness of a quasi-human being trapped forever in egg yolk). Then, there is the terrifying Jabberwocky who appears just in time for Alice to conquer him.

And all these things are the products of McKintosh's fertile mind.

Carroll's text which has been adapted into a playscript by the poet, Adrian Mitchell, leads anyone considering this show for production (it has, incidentally, cost the RSC pounds 25,000) to the all important question of its meaning.

Lewis Carroll himself once teasingly explained the meaning of TheHunting Of The Snark. But he was evasive. And he might well have been the same about Alice.

``I'm very much afraid I didn't mean anything at all but nonsense. Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them. So a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer meant originally.''

It is a viewpoint with which post-Freudians would certainly connect and McKintosh embraces Carroll's Victorian logic wholeheartedly.

``I read the book a couple of times and I appreciate what Carroll is driving at. But literary comprehension didn't help me when I was searching for a design motif upon which to hang the show. At first, I was totally at a loss, I thought to myself I simply don't know what to do with it.

``So I really needed to find a way to make Alice accessible in 2001. I was looking for a way that would not alienate an audience. It had to be a show that people might expect but which did not slavishly copy other designs and concepts.

``I wanted it to look postTenniel -- and Tenniel did, as we all know, the original illustrations -- but you have to get beyond that and move on.''

McKintosh pauses and since it is late and we have to sleep, we decline pudding and order tea. Then he breaks off to phone his partner in order to check that it is understood he will be late home.After that he moves on to discuss his interest in architecture, a design field which is reflected in some of the neat, hardedged sets.

``I love modern architecture. In fact, I once did three days as an architect, but I really trained at Warwick University in their excellent drama department, continuing on later to Bristol Theatre School which was a great experience. ``You weren't taught how to draw -- that is something you find for yourself -- but you were taught to recognise the aesthetic of a given production and that is important to me, you were taught to look for the colour and I like colour.

``When I designed Guys And Dolls at Sheffield, we had shirts and ties that matched the set, and each character was colour-coded. Colour can say a lot.''

This calm and friendly designer told me that Alice came together ``bit by bit.'' One early concept he told me was the shape of the trees which float in now and again. McKintosh's trees are stylised and rather resemble apple-green circular saws with serrated edges -- touch one and your finger comes off.

``Some designers bring real trees on to the stage. But it never works since illusion and reality do not go well together. I was told to design a tree that would serve all purposes and that is what I hope I've done.

``I found a way of doing a tree as a kind of graphic design. It was my first way into this wonderful project and after that initial idea I think that my Alice began to fall into shape.

``My trees were two-dimensional, and that is what became the overall concept. I wanted to have something that worked for the audience as soon as it was flown in and hit the deck. The essence of a tree, if you like.

``I wanted to show something that would make children think about theatre and trees and Cheshire cats, about knights who resemble chess pieces and so on.

``Everybody said how are you going to make Alice herself shrink and grow tall again? It was easy -- I used moving scenery and it gave the impression of an increase and decrease in her height.''

I ask him about his heroes from the past. And like any designer he mentions initially Leonid Bakst, who designed the magnificent sets for the Russian Ballet when that amazing company changed the shape of design in the West at the onset of the 20th century.

But McKintosh moves on and lists Sean Kenny, the original designer for Lionel Bart's Oliver. Kenny was the first man in the history of theatre who used solid state railway sleepers in the construction of the moveable sets which made the musical so astonishing to watch.

``He was a hero -- but I also worked with Mark Thompson onThe Wind in the Wil-lows at the National Theatre. You know how it is -- with some people you feel completely comfortable and it was like that with Mark. A very witty man with a lovely sense of colour, therefore someone with whom I had much in common.''

The aim with Alice was to capture the essence of the character -- particularly the animals. McKintosh has already said that he ``wasn't interested in sticking apapier-mache rabbit's head on to an actor since that would be little more than a puppet show.''

He said that he saw the caterpillar as ``a bit of a good Glastonbury hippy living in a sleeping bag -- I gave him a line of woollen mittens down his front instead of caterpillar feet.''

It's true to say that the actors in the Alice company seem very contented with what McKintosh has done for them. John Conroy, who plays the Caterpillar with all the aplomb of a 19th century philosopher (which is probably what Lewis Carroll had in mind) has noted that he looks like a cross between a Michelin man and an electric-blue cream horn.

Martyn Ellis (Humpty Dumpty) is fitted wholesale inside a large shell which leaves him just enough room for his arms and face. He reckons it is so hot inside the costume that he is likely to be a boiled egg before the end of the run. For Sarah Redmond, who plays the glamorous Cheshire Cat on a Mae West hot lips couch, the ostrich feather coat which he wears was no problem. But she did comment amusingly on the expense of the costume. ``Every time I see a feather float off, I think there goes a tenner.''

McKintosh says: ``I have worked with actresses (who shall be nameless) who have said to me at various times `make me look lovely.' But Alice is not about making people look glamorous. It is more about creating a character within a viable aesthetic which contains its own kind of theatrical truth.

``And I must say I have never met a better bunch of people, from the actors to the costume makers, and all this has made the job so much easier for me.

``The Jabberwocky was very expensive. But it is a marvellous bit of workmanship and is exactly what I envisaged. It competes with the sci-fi images which today's children see on television but do not usually expect to find in the theatre.

``On reflection, and looking back over many months of work, it has all left me feeling happy -as much as one ever is happy with the things one does, and really, I do not think there's much I would change.''

l Alice In Wonderland is at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-uponAvon until March 9, 2002.


The Royal Shakespeare Company's current production of Alice in Wonderland. Below, Jamie Golding (Tweedledum), Adam Sims (Tweedledee) and Katherine Heath (Alice)
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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