Problems in Wonderland

Two short plays, three people, each with a cloud hanging over them.

Three icons of the literary world featured in these short glimpses into their private lives. Each with a cloud hanging over them, revealed in private conversations – one with his daughter, the others in conversation between themselves.

Wodehouse in Wonderland at the Haymarket in Basingstoke was a reflection of Pelham (Plum) Grenville Wodehouse – PG Wodehouse – and of his gentle humour. With readings from Blandings Castle and other extracts of his work, Robert Daws painted a background of peace and tranquillity for Wodehouse, now living in America. Off stage asides to his wife and friends (and his adored Pekingese dogs) cemented the feeling of a gentle man at peace with himself. But there was more to this tale.

As was the case with A Perfect Likeness at the Hanger Farm Arts Centre, just outside of Southampton. This imagined a meeting between Charles Dodgson, better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll, and Charles Dickens. It is imagined that Dickens, intigued by Carroll’s recently published Alice in Wonderland, agrees to pose for a portrait by this keen amateur photographer at his university rooms. As with Wodehouse there more to this tale than a simple meeting of two contemporaries. And it is more than just Wonderland in the both the title of Alice and Wodehouse which links these two productions.

With Wodehouse, his readings, his songs, his off-stage asides are juxtoposed with letters he writes to his (adopted) daughter Leonora. Judging be the audible gasps one or two people weren’t aware that she had died before Wodhouse moved to America after the second world war. It is through these letters and through conversations with an unseen biographer that Wodehouse tackles the issue which hangs over him.

Having been incarcerated by the Nazis when they invaded France, his former home, Wodehouse made a number of humourous broadcasts to America (before the US joined the war) on his release. When they were later broadcast to the United Kingdom by the Nazis, he was taken for another Lord Haw Haw and was vilified as a traitor by many. In this play he doesn’t seek to justify anything – he merely reports it as what had happened. Although he never returned to the UK, the opprobrium diminished after the war and his rehabilitation was complete when he was awarded a knighthood in a new year’s honours list following the intervention of the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson.

The play does manage to pose the question about whether Wodehouse betrayed his country, without directly addressing it. It is possible to ponder that deeper question or to simply immerse oneself in this simple history of the man and his writing.

For Dickens and Dodgson the issues are more clearly expressed. The accusations of paedophilia made against Dodgson after his death for his obsession with Alice Liddell, in particular, and his his fascination with photographing and drawing naked children more generally are tackled head on – but in the Victorian context of an expression of innocence. Both Dickens and Dodgson acknowledge his (Dodgson’s) fascination is ‘problematic’. More so because Dodgson is banned from the Liddell household because of his desire to have close contact with the children.

The confession that Dodgson wrings from Dickens is entirely more commonplace if potentially no less damaging to the reputation of an established author. On promise of silence from Dodgson, Dickens admits to a long term adultery with a young actress barely an adult herself.

Both these issues are dealt with more directly and robustly than the underlying question in Wodehouse in Wonderland, and the fictitious meeting between these two authors works well, particularly in real time. This not a unique plot type and there have been many stories about meetings between historical characters that only ever happened in the head of the author. Here the conversation is a very witty and amusing as a vehicle for discussion of some serious issues.

The actors – Ross Muir (Dodgson) and David Stephens (Dickens) – both do a good job of creating this convincing fictional meeting.

We were lucky enough to see these plays on consecutive evenings. Either would have been a pleasant enough way to pass an evening, but together they seemed to make more than the sum of their parts. Worth a look.

Wodehouse in Wonderland
The Haymarket, Basingstoke

A Perfect Likeness
Hanger Farm Arts Centre, Totton

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