English playwright, lyricist, actor and raconteur Noel Coward (1899 –1973) is still remembered for his plays such as the wife-after-death comedy Blithe Spirit and Private Lives; his playlet Still Life, which became the classic David Lean film Brief Encounter, and his scripting and co-direction of the WW2 morale-booster In Which We Serve, also directed by Lean, for which Coward won an Honorary Academy Award. However, he’s perhaps better known now more as an image of archetypal mid-20th century Englishness, replete with dressing-gown and cigarette-holder, and the hundreds of witty songs and poems he wrote, such as Mad Dogs and Englishman and Mrs Worthington, which he performed in cabaret in his distinctively clipped English manner to much acclaim in London and, latterly, in Las Vegas.
His 1946 song Alice (Is At It Again), written and then cut from his flop musical Pacific 1860, became a standard of his cabaret act and, with its suggestive lyrics, risqué subject matter and sly wit, is typical of his oeuvre. It’s thus a surprising choice perhaps by rising Australian actress Sarah Snook for the subject of her new short film Alice, co-devised with director Laura Scrivano, and the second film of The Passion, a new online series of performed poetry films coming out of Australia. The first film in the series, A Lovesong, starring Daniel Henshall (from AMC’s Turn: Washington Spies), featured T.S. Eliot’s modernist masterpiece The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (watch it below), so Alice is a change both in style and tone for the series, but continues the project’s experimentation in rendering poetry on film for a digital audience.
Sarah, who won critical acclaim for her genderswitching role in the 2015 science-fiction thriller Predestination, found the Coward text in a bookshop in San Francisco, while sourcing a text for her film for the series.
(Director) Laura and I were interested in the ideas of femininity and how that is expressed, particularly in sexual or sensual terms. When I read the poem, I was charmed by it and excited by the potential and challenge of contemporizing it for The Passion. Coward’s themes are very much of the time and place of the original lyrics’ writing, as is his take on them, while our adaptation is an updating, an exploration of female sexuality and empowerment that Coward plays with, and the wildness and freedom of discovering that. Our Alice, who I think nods to Coward’s, is breaking out of the strictures of her background, and being free and true to herself.
Originally Alice, as read by Coward, would have been performed with a patter, a rhythm of its own, with a sense of irony and a lot of wit, and certainly in his very particular RP accent. It’s hard to escape that as it’s written so well and embedded so deeply into the lines, with a particular scansion, but I wanted to go against that somewhat, while retaining and respecting Coward’s sparkle and playfulness.
Alice is the second film of The Passion series, in which actors select a text which has a personal significance for them or strikes a particular chord, and then work closely in collaboration with director Laura Scrivano to develop it as a new performance piece for film. A third film is currently in development. More information about the series can be found at this website.
Dan Prichard is an online film and webseries producer, based in Sydney, whose work explores identity, place, and the space between film and performance in the digital arena. Visit his website and follow him on twitter @georgekaplan81