A woman dressed as a horse tears pages out of an unconscious Johnathan Swift’s book and tramples them under hoof. From the outset of Radu Stanca National Theatre of Sibiu’s startling and visually striking production of Gulliver’s Travels, director Silviu Purcărete literally makes it clear this is no deferential adaptation of the classic.
Instead, he goes on to present a series of tableaux – more physical theatre than traditional staging – inspired by passages from the latter sections of Swift’s satire. Here, the mood is at its most misanthropic. The folly of mankind’s existence is paraded before us: whether the sickening onset of old age; or the latest crop of newborn infants perpetuating our pitiful line.
Purcărete’s vision is to present these as grand grotesqueries, using an ensemble cast skilled in expressive movement, mime and puppetry. The Romanian dialogue is kept to a minimum, and is either supertitled on screens either side of the stage or translated via voiceovers.
The lack of narrative is not an issue, given Gulliver’s Travels direction as a highly visual, dreamlike production. Brief passages from Swift’s writing introduce scenes which some may find disturbing in their bleak savagery, but few can fault on their visual and dramatic impact.
Surgeons lance growths which spew forth flour which mingles with the hay on the stage floor; a prostitute is pilloried and tortured by droog-style tormentors; a baby is selected from a table and cooked before being offered to a child: the imagery is often shocking, but always memorable.
Yet it is not without humour either. Though firmly rooted in the absurd, some of the scenes which represent the difference in size between the towering Gulliver and the tiny Yahoos are hilarious – and excellently realised and performed through the use of shadow and mime.
Gulliver’s Travels is not a production for those looking for a faithful rendition of a charming story they may only remember from storybook adaptations. Purcărete’s production also has one or two moments where its scenes threaten to outstay their welcome, despite its relatively tight 90 minute running time.
Yet, as a unique and visceral interpretation of some of the more morbid themes in the source material, Radu Stanca National Theatre of Sibiu have created a bold work which sears itself into the mind. And with its extreme shifts from moments of dispassioned nihilism to scenes of playful lunacy, you get the sense it is a version Swift would have heartily approved of.
Gulliver’s Travels is at The King’s Theatre until Monday 20th August. Further information is on the EIF website.