Noel Coward’s “Alice (Is At It Again)” Gets Reimagined as a Very Modern Fairy Tale: A Short Film Starring Sarah Snook

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.

Says Sarah:

(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

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