As he himself admits, Silviu Purcărete’s Gulliver’s Travels is a very dark beast. “The starting-point was discovering how very bitter and misanthropic Swift was. This production is more like a post-mortem dream: pessimistic and sad.”
Purcărete makes no bones that he has selected parts of Gulliver’s Travels to fit this vision and it is so far away from the narrative of the book that, in keeping with his posthumous vision, I would almost suggest the Radu Stanca National Theatre of Sibiu, Romania’s production be called After Gulliver’s Travels (and not as is done quietly in the programme ‘Gulliver’s Travels after Jonathan Swift’).
To do so would initially appear pedantic and too representational for such a dreamlike spectacle. But it is only when you look at it not as an interpretation of Swift’s satire but as Purcărete’s original work in response to it, that this phantasmagorical Gulliver’s Travels really succeeds.
We begin with an occurrence that can have only delighted the Irish author however. A real horse is paraded in elegant resplendence across the stage prompting a spontaneous round of applause.
This is a fitting start for a show where Dragos Buhagiar’s set throughout calls to mind a stable block coupled with the spiritual presence of a cathedral and the dirt of the madhouse. Purcărete elegantly touches on other areas of Swift’s work, representing Lilliput and Brobdingnag through yo-yoing shadow puppetry. But it is the misanthropic A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms – where enlightened horses rule over the savage human Yahoos – that is his main focus.
Grotesque characters with swollen bellies and growths – reminiscent of Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel – rampage the stage as a pompous, fat, Swift/Gulliver is abused, plagued by the Yahoos that continue to haunt and disgust him.
More of Swift’s works are brought into fit with Purcărete’s nightmarish vision. Perhaps the most powerful is the inclusion of A Modest Proposal where Swift proposed to the poor Irish that they sell their children to the butcher. Tables of puppets with small heads, legs, fat bellies and legs are manipulated to look real. A chef, in a spotless white hat, picks a newborn with the eye of an expert, sautés its liver and then feeds it to our silent child narrator. This packs a punch but the chef’s flair reveals a rather hysterical humour.
But Purcărete is not afraid to mark his own satirical mark. A scene where sharp suited bankers parade around in uniform lines only to descend into a grasping, tearing, ripping mess, nicely brings these politically barbed travels up to date.
The cast of 18 – intimate for Purcărete – is drilled with the precision of soldiers. They are one personality with many faces. A one moment they revel in their misshapen individuality, the next they are collectively changing direction like shoals of fish or birds.
Purcărete is undeniably a master of stage tableaux and if you take everything else away and let these awesome images wash over you this is often more than enough. But en masse they have the confusing and overwhelming logic of dreams and if you think about what each one means it is often too much.
To counter this bombastic imagination, Shaun Davey’s minimalist score – bringing to mind Tubular Bells – cleanses the palate. After so much richness on stage, it is an essential element of a theatrical feast that will leave you satisfied, but possibly suffering a little from indigestion too.