Review: Gulliver’s Travels

In the programme notes to Gulliver’s Travels, Silviu Purcarete says, “My performance borrows only the title of Swift’s novel, and is in fact an independent production inspired by the book… [it] is more like a post-mortem dream: pessimistic and sad.” Having sat through the ninety minutes of Purcarete’s production with Radu Stanca National Theatre of Sibiu, presented as part of the Edinburgh International Festival, Purcarete’s dream-like take on Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel becomes clear. Using a series of visual images, voiceovers, and grotesque representations, Swift’s strange and marvellous lands and natives of all shapes and sizes are presented with imaginative glee. It is surreal and intoxicating, with Purcarete creating images and scenes representing the obscure societies and situations that Gulliver finds himself in during his travels. At times it feels as if the whole stage is one rolling stage image on wheels, depicting visual after visual. Whilst stimulating for the eyes, it does call to question the intellectual and narrative form of Gulliver’s Travels which feels lost in Purcarete’s dream version.

Known for it’s satirical poke at society, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels makes for a fine read which naturally makes it hard to transfer to the stage. Instead of truly describing in narrative and novel-like ways, Purcarete collates and disperses a series of images and scenes that are inspired from the novel. Theres are still the Yahoos and Houyhnhnms, the horse-like creatures. and just for added punch there’s a real horse which seems to dominate the small Kings Theatre stage. There’s trickery of scale as Gulliver grows in size some ten feet above any man, before being shrunk back down again, and to ensure this isn’t the most pleasant of viewings there are grotesque creatures with deformities that are slit open to reveal flour for harvesting. It’s all quite bizarre, but then so is Swift’s novel.

Purcarete’s production works best when it is tongue-in-cheek. Taking the surreal nature of Swift’s characters and creatures there’s much within Pucarete’s representation of these, I only wish that there was more narrative thread to hold it together. That’s not to say it’s all visual, there’s much voiceover to give an essence of the book, and you can clearly see when Gulliver is represented through shadow, adult form or indeed as a young boy on top of a wooden horse on wheels. The problem with Gulliver’s Travels is that you don’t get a scope of adventure or voyage, instead we are treated to visual representation, but I longed for a ship to set sail. Although saying that, Purcarete does his best not to represent the novel as it should do, his adaptation swirls at suggested scenes and moments. As it happens I’m currently reading the book and could see how one image created on the stage could align itself to a chapter of the book, but for those with no prior reading the affect might be a little disorientating.

Setting aside narrative qualms there is much within Gulliver’s Travels to tingle your tastebuds. The sheer relentless visual images make the ninety minutes melt away with ease, and whilst it was clear the production isn’t quite to a traditional British audience (the walk outs alone showed this), to have the work shown as part of the Edinburgh International Festival was a treat. I left the theatre a little bemused to say the least, but thinking back on the experience I can’t say I wasn’t captivated. There’s something within the grotesque and mental hospital images that are portrayed that showed a much darker side than Swift’s novel conveys. It may be harder to see the parallels between our society and that presented on the stage, but there’s certainly a hint of truth within some moments. There’s a particularly strong instance when the cast are dressed in suits and having performed in military style walking about the stage for several minutes they dismount into an orgy of clothes-tearing and fighting, reducing themselves to near-nakedness and nothingness. In another moment women clutching babies sell their offspring whilst a chief serves up a delicate meal of baby meat. It’s wild and unhinged, but it does make for a visual treat.

Whilst I’m not entirely convinced by Gulliver’s Travels there is certainly much to admire and to be repulsed by. Pucarete creates a stage of rolling images that at times are humerous, at others disturbing. With an ensemble of strong Romanian performers and enough visual stimulus to see you through the evening, it’s clear audiences will be divided, but who wants theatre that doesn’t provoke at least some kind of reaction?

Gulliver’s Travels played at the Edinburgh International Festival. For more information on the festival see the Edinburgh International Festival website.

Originally published on A Younger Theatre.