It’s a story that appears without fail at each Brighton Fringe in various forms. But for director Paul Davies, retelling Lewis Carroll’s classic was about finding something less intensely emotional than Volcano’s last performances.

“We had made a couple of quite radically different texts,” he says from a misty mountain in the middle of Wales.

“Both A Clockwork Orange and Shakespeare’s Sonnets were fairly violent in their exploration of the extremes of human behaviour, passion and sex.

“I really fancied doing something a bit more gentle or surreal. I didn’t want to do anything which had desire writ large.”

Audiences for Volcano’s take on Alice In Wonderland shouldn’t expect rabbit heads or Fiona Fullerton’s famous blue and white dress in Volcano’s take on the “radical classic”.

Instead the story is told by five Alices aged between 22 and 71 – including Jenny Runacre, star of Derek Jarman’s cult punk movie Jubilee – backed by 84 bales of hay in a physical and interactive performance.

Davies and his team drew inspiration from lots of different sources – ranging from the original text to Jonathan Miller’s black and white version and Czech director Jan Švankmajer’s 1988 surrealist movie.

“We wanted to avoid sentimentalising the pre-pubescent girl that Lewis Carroll had something of a problem with,” says Davies.

“It’s more about our capacity for dreaming – something we have lost and children have in spades. Carroll was 30 years ahead of surrealism.”

The staging of the story went through several versions, including the idea of having Alice as an older woman surrounded by child actors – with Rula Lenska approached to play the central role – until it was decided to have an all-female cast, representing both Alice and the creations of her subconscious.

Radical approach

In rehearsal, Davies and Icelandic designer Guðný Hrund Sigurðardóttir created massive mood boards of cuttings, pictures and text related to the story which plastered the rehearsal room walls.

“We would go back to them when we got stuck,” says Davies. “It’s really important for us to work like that.

“I don’t know if it’s partly down to the Icelandic people – they come at things from very strange angles, with a dry sense of humour, not giving a hoot about health and safety.

“At one point we had five white rabbits in the space for about six weeks, which Guðný had given to the actors until we could find homes for them all.

“When we were talking about getting rid of the animal costumes, she suggested the actors should be a tribe and so would have to be topless. For about five days the actors were all saying, ‘I’ll do it if you do it’. I knew it would just annoy all the venues so stopped it!”

Davies is keen to point out that there is nothing cute about the company’s take on Alice In Wonderland – and it is not necessarily aimed at children or anyone with allergies.

“There are 84 bales of hay because it’s two times 42 – Lewis Carroll’s favourite number,” says Davies.

“There is a sense of the physical. It’s not a gymnastic display, it’s visceral. The hay gets everywhere.”

The hay itself represents a return to a rural utopia suggested by the original story.

“Alice In Wonderland was Freudianised in 1930 and there have been versions that really nail Lewis Carroll as a paedophile,”

says Davies.

“I’m not particularly interested in that. I’m more interested in the dreamscape world of it.

“Most of us inhabit an urban landscape.

I like to pitch my idea for Alice In Wonderland as about how we have lost our capacity for interaction with the rural world.

“Carroll was living in rural Oxfordshire in an academic world – a landscape that couldn’t engage with the Victorian capitalist, materialist world.

“The hay bales are a symbol of something we used to be.”