“Gulliver’s Travels”

at King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Friday 17th August 2012

Radu Stanca National Theatre of Romania’s production of Gulliver’s Travels (presented as part of the Edinburgh International Festival) is something of a playbox. Using Jonathan Swift’s text more as a springboard than as a framework, director Silviu Purcărete uses the different worlds in the novel to create sketches on stage rather than attempting a through-narrative. Some extraordinarily clever ideas follow, supported by some memorable images, but the whole thing feels just a little stilted and the length of some sections makes them difficult to follow.

The production begins with a straw-covered stage with humans-as-horses and a real horse, suggesting Yahoos and Houyhnhnms respectively. An old judge, a young man and some giant rats appear. This kind of occurrence sets the tone for the next ninety minutes, as images from Swift’s work filter into the world of the stage.

The Lilliput and Brobdingnag scenes are bar far the most successful and the most intelligent; the former is achieved through use of shadows on a screen and the latter by actors on either side of the stage and miniature figurines. These are wonderfully clever and find joy in the way these problems are solved, extracting gasps and giggles from the audience, but sometimes it feels like Radu Stanca are being a little too clever without reason. It’s wonderful, but does go on a bit.

The best scene is based on the Laputa narrative (I think). Suited men march around a stage in strict lines to hypnotic, fairground-style music (Shaun Davey), but end up tearing one another’s clothes off. The scene does go on a while, but the images created are stunning in their simplicity and strangely compelling. For better or for worse, this is the closest this production comes to satire, as banker-types refuse to stray from the rules, hold their possessions close to their chest and end up causing their own destruction.

Woven between these sketches from Gulliver’s Travels are extracts from Swift’s poem “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed” (written six years after the novel, in 1731), which examine the lives of prostitutes in London. Funnily enough, these scenes are the ones which work best in the space and manage to find a comfortable tone. The major section of this other plot sees humans-as-puppets, with one person providing the head and using hands for feet, and the other doing hand movements. I could watch those creatures all day.

Along with designer Dragos Buhagiar, Purcărete creates an aesthetic which lends itself to the sandbox style, with large sheets of clear tarpaulin adorning the wings and a straw-covered tile floor. Everything is slightly rough and ready, but is beautiful in its handicraft texture. The child who is present throughout almost acts as a piece of set in this visual landscape, suggesting a play area in which the company invent and explore.

It’s difficult to tell exactly how much light this production of Gulliver’s Travels sheds on the novel, but there is no doubt as a theatrical exploration of the worlds Swift presents it doesn’t fail to excite. As someone who doesn’t know the source material particularly well, it’s often difficult to follow exactly what’s happening, but issues like this cannot be blamed on the company. The techniques used are perhaps a little ostentatious and their necessity isn’t obvious, but they are certainly impressive. Purcărete’s production is by no means as satirical as Swift’s original, but instead decides to revel in the imaginations of author, audience and company so we can collectively conceive new boundaries and new possibilities.

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