Discovering wonderland: local director Dione Orrom on the V&A’s Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition

Emma Clegg talks to local director Dione Orrom about a new documentary which explores the V&A’s Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition, releasing in independent cinemas this month

Published in 1865 and 1871, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodson) have become imprinted on the memories of the children who read them, and have had an enduring impact on those who have played with stories, visuals and ideas ever since, from suffragettes, artists and musicians to theatre, film and fashion creatives. The stories, never out of print, have been translated into 170 languages.

The uppermost theme in the novels is of an innocent world of games and fun with characters such as the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, The Mad Hatter, Humpty Dumpty and Tweedledum and Tweedledee who have secured their place in popular culture and within our everyday language with phrases such as “mad as a hatter”, “off with their heads”, and “Cheshire Cat grin”. The power of the stories comes from their multiple layers, spiked with madness, irreverence, illogicality and a topsy-turvy world where anything is possible – Alice, after all, can grow bigger and smaller, step into another world through a mirror and talk to flowers in the garden.

The fun and fantastical elements also have many abstract depths. Alice knows her own mind, and represents a strong and independent female figure, highly unusual for the Victorian era when girls did not go to school and whose behaviour was defined by the rigid morals of the time. Alice’s forthright perspective is perhaps one of the reasons why these stories have had such an enduring legacy, because everything (especially the nonsense) is questioned, creating multiple layers of meaning and the probing of the abstract and philosophical.

“When I first went to the Alice exhibition at the V&A,” explains Dione Orrom, “what I loved was how it explored themes and ideas that really opened up how I thought about Alice, and the realisation that Alice is so culturally embedded. Looking at how it has changed over time, how different mediums take Alice and how she can be different things to different people.”

Bath-based Dione is the director of a new documentary about an exhibition at the V&A Museum, Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser, which opened in May this year and runs until the end of December. An immersive and theatrical show, it explores the origins, adaptations and reinventions of the Alice stories over 157 years, and charts the evolution of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland from manuscript to a global phenomenon.

The documentary film is a medium that has attached itself to big art concepts in recent years – the dramatised documentary Pompeii in 2003, David Bowie Is in 2013 again linked to a V&A exhibition, and Matisse in 2019.

“What is most exciting about events cinema – adapting theatre and shows into live cinema – is that they can take a show to people who wouldn’t be able to go and see it,” Dione explains. “This exhibition translates beautifully to film because it is so immersive and a magical journey and I really hope that’s what we have captured on film.”

Dione reminds me that Charles Dodson’s story started off as a tale he told on a golden afternoon on a river journey to three sisters. “It was a simple story, but the exhibition investigates on how many levels it was working. Dodson was a scientist and a polymath, but he also loved nonsense and games and curiosities, so there are so many layers to it which still provoke our interest today.”

Many of the works influenced by the Alice stories have become legends in themselves, from Vivienne Westwood’s Red Label Autumn-Winter 2011/12 collection, Yayoi Kusama’s visionary illustrations to the books and the works of Salvador Dali to the dark fantasy film by Jan Švankmajer (1988) and Tim Walker’s 2018 visionary Pirelli Calendar of Alice with an all-black cast. This breadth is captured in the exhibition and made the process of permissions and copyright for the film particularly complex, Dione explains.

The documentary – presented by senior V&A curator Kate Bailey and broadcaster Andi Oliver, with Alice played by young actress Olivia Wells – follows the five Alice-inspired worlds in the exhibition with close-ups of key objects and insightful interviews with guest contributors including Peter Black and Ralph Steadman. The exhibition has an immersive soundscape, and some of the soundtrack was used to complement and mix with the specially commissioned music in the film, from composer James Pickering. “An exhibition relates to the physical space, whereas a film needs to capture and immerse the viewer in a different way and and so the music was important for the emotional journey,” says Dione. The film is 90 minutes long, and the main challenge was achieving this, gradually editing it down from the first two-and-a-half-hour version.

The relevance of the themes today makes this emotional journey easier. “Alice speaks Truth to Power,” says Dione. “You realise that anybody can be Alice and it’s the notion that she challenges and questions things, and takes on her own adventure. She is afraid and brave. She is all kinds of things, but it’s the idea of questioning and standing up to power that endures.”

The V&A Presents Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser, produced and distributed by Trafalgar Releasing, launches in independent cinemas nationwide including the Little Theatre Cinema, Bath, from 14 October.

Main image: Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition at V&A Museum