17 January 2017 at 7.50pm | 1 Comment
Butter the scones, cut the crusts off the sandwiches, and fire up the kettle: it’s time for a Tea Party. Or, rather, a ‘T’ party, where Alice and her Wonderland-dwelling friends are transported to the modern world, and the T stands not for a drink with jam and bread, but for… Therapy.
It’s not surprising that Lewis Carroll’s characters are in need of intervention; Alice, constantly bombarded with messages of what she should be eating or drinking to make her bigger or smaller, is struggling with her body image. The Queen of Hearts, frequently clamouring for her subjects’ heads to be cut off, could do with a little help managing her anger. And as Carroll’s Cheshire Cat famously proclaims, ‘We’re all mad here!’
Fast-forward 152 years from the novel’s publication, and there’s a darker truth in this originally throwaway phrase: 1 in 4 people will struggle with a mental health issue in any given year. We may not all be ‘mad’, but we’re certainly not all ‘normal’ (whatever that means) either – and it’s this delicate balance that’s inherent in ZooNation’s colourful performance, directed by Kate Prince.
‘Kate is really good at dealing with serious issues in a sensitive yet humorous way,’ says ZooNation’s Teneisha Bonner who is dancing the role of The Queen of Hearts. ‘We know that mental illness and the struggles so many people have with it are very serious but it doesn’t have to be a ‘doom and gloom’ thing that people have to keep in the shadows. Actually, the show sparks conversation and dialogue.
Within Mad Hatter, we’re dealing with serious issues, but we’re putting everything out on the table, and discussing them, but actually having a bit of a laugh too.’
‘If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry,’ interjects Rowen Hawkins, aka TweedleDee.
‘It’s always a sensitive thing,’ he continues, ‘but people who are dealing with these issues might get a sense of relief out of it, to actually laugh at the thing that’s causing the most grief.’
This balance between the harrowing and the humorous is not just constructed in the dialogue; it’s inherent in the very fabric of the show and its style of movement.
For those more familiar with the pliés and pas de deux of classical ballet, Cheshire Cat Andry Oporia explains the significance of krumping, a hip hop dance style used in the show:
‘It looks very aggressive but it’s not, it’s expressive,’ he says.
In fact, as Andry explains, these boundary-blurring movements are often the most powerful for the audience, especially those dealing with the issues tackled in the performance.
‘They could relate with one of the characters straight away, the way that they were behaving made them understand the story,’ he says of an audience member experiencing mental health difficulties who came to see the show. ‘It was therapeutic for them to watch, and see their journey, but also enjoy it because they knew it was a performance: there was a slight detachment.
But also, when you're watching the show with all the colourful costumes, and everything else, you can't not be immersed in what's going on. There's something to relate to for everyone.'
It certainly seems that way: with a lively soundtrack and a razor-sharp script, it’s no wonder audiences of all ages are leaving the Roundhouse grinning. But for the dancers, required to channel both complex characters and high-energy movements, it’s a slightly different story:
‘I remember feeling exhausted, emotionally,’ Tommy Franzen, playing the role of the Psychotherapist, says. ‘My character, in particular, gets stressed, and you obviously take that on. I feel just drained afterwards, not only physically but emotionally.’
Teneisha tells a similar story: ‘The Queen has got anger management issues, so in rehearsals, while it’s fun to be like "Arrrrrgh!", you have to have something there in order to go "Arrrrrgh!" about, you have to conjure something from deep down in order to stay at that peak for the hour and a half. By the end of the show I felt absolutely drained from being stressed and pent up all the time. For the whole show up until my number I’m holding back and suddenly I let go. That takes a certain amount of control.’
Luckily, it’s this ‘letting go’, combined with the show’s uplifting message of acceptance, that makes all the difference. Ultimately, this nightly T party is a positive journey for the dancers too.
‘Dance, because it incorporates everything – spiritually, mentally, physically, emotionally – is such a great outlet for people to just let rip,’ Teneisha says. ‘If you have that as an outlet it can only be beneficial.’
The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party runs at the Roundhouse until 22 January 2017. Tickets are still available.
The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Lily Safra, The Paul Hamlyn Education Fund, The Lord Leonard and Lady Estelle Wolfson Foundation, The Austin and Hope Pilkington Trust and The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.
Time To Change is an organisation which aims to end mental health discrimination. To learn more, visit their website.