Any audiobook of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland must concede ground, if not early defeat, to the book's enchantment with the printed page. As listeners we cannot see Tenniel's illustrations, which create so much of the atmosphere; we cannot see the mouse's tale in the shape of its tail; or the tiny addition to meaning contributed by the fact that every character - Rabbit, Hatter, March Hare, Dormouse, Caterpillar, etc - has an upper-case initial letter, as part of this world's upside-down proprieties.
' "What is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures...?" ' But listeners have one advantage: you can visualise what you do not see, whereas you cannot visualise what you do see (because you are seeing it), a very Carroll-like conundrum. Besides, so much of Alice has to do with listening and refusing to listen, with repeating and reciting and singing, that our earliest memories of it are a blur: did I read it first or was it read to me? More than any other book, hearing Alice feels like reading Alice, and vice versa.
The vital thing for audio is to catch Alice's childlike grown-upness, her constancy against the odds (her blanched composure in Tenniel's illustrations). Among the many available audio versions - the oddest being those with male narrators - it is only Miriam Margolyes who really registers that while the story was originally written for a child, the child in the story must be treated as an equal. 'Alice is the most reasonable and responsible person in the book', as William Empson remarked. But her sense of justice does not prevent her from being bossy, opinionated and cross, as well as eager to learn and keen to please. So she is a serious child, not a miniature adult, and her answer to finding herself below ground is to remain firmly down to earth. This is a difficult balancing act.
Margolyes's Alice is highly pitched, because nervously porous to what happens, but also stolidly herself, her inner resources expressed in small modulations and in rhythms rising and falling. This Alice is decidedly a character contained by her story rather than containing it. Rightly so, since she is ordered about so much: children live in a world where they control nothing, and Alice's voice must not sound as if she is framing her own story.
Margolyes gives an unhurried reading, wide open to the story's delinquency: its playing about with Time, its people who have all the time in the world, solitaries marinated in indolence. Margolyes allows these separate realities to establish themselves: the yawning Mock Turtle, the narcoleptic Dormouse, the slow-talking Dodo, the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat.
The registers are often high, suggesting affinities with Alice: the Rabbit's adenoid falsetto, the Dormouse's dozing tremolo, the shrill Mouse. Elsewhere Margolyes is robust with accents, but assigns them with tact, none of it rupturing the seamless flow of the story's discontinuities. Thus Pat the Irish gardener, digging for apples, the cockney Gryphon, the Pigeon rendered in fluttering plaintive Welsh, the almost inaudible drawl of the Cheshire Cat, whose self-sufficient non sequiturs are faintly American. The three gardeners are awed and muted rustics, the March Hare is a mellifluous Squire-ish confidence-trickster. And Margolyes sings the 'Lobster-Quadrille' and 'Turtle Soup' in a forsaken fashion, her Mock-Turtle a gloomy reflective Scot.
Margolyes is also fearless at knockabout, and can convey the general madness because she so closely attends to the story's acerbic decorum: the barking Queen, the Duchess (quite Lady Bracknell), the Hatter barking with a hint of lisp or impediment, or the broad comedy of the stand-off in the tiny house, when an overgrown Alice fends off all-comers from entry.
Alice's cool acceptance of the other characters is what gives them their reality. This is very different from the suggestion of Fiona Shaw's reading that they are all emanations of Alice's dream-self. Shaw's is a more suave performance, more knowing, less at sea. Margolyes's Alice is sturdier. As a direct result, there is not a sentence that does not have its purposefulness (or porpoisefulness). It is alive with narrative intelligence.
Posted : 1st March 2016