Curve, Leicester, Friday 1st June, 2012
There are some people who think Gulliver’s Travels is a kids’ story. These people hardly ever see beyond the surface – or past the chapters concerning the Lilliputians. Happily, I am able to report that this Dragon Breath Theatre production covers the whole story and, while child friendly, deals with the grown-up issues and emotions contained within Swift’s story, which first appeared in 1726. In particular I was pleased to see the political satire intact and updated: the witty –and rhyming- script counterpoints Jove with the ‘almighty Gove’ as, in its most absurdist episode, on the flying island, the closed thinking of educational policy is exposed as ridiculous.
Each of Lemuel Gulliver’s adventures presents technical challenges. How will they stage Lilliput? The Giants? The Houyhnhnms? Director Adel Al-Salloum rises to each challenge and deals with them with inventive and charming solutions. The tiny Lilliputians reminded me of the Tombliboos on In The Night Garden and the Houyhnhnms are horse heads on flexible rods, beautiful and graceful. The changes in scale are handled superbly.
The ensemble of performers transform the simple shipdeck setting into spaces on which the audience can project imagined pictures conjured by Peter Rumney’s evocative and funny script. Lemuel Gulliver (Chris Jack) is emotionally and mentally disturbed – it’s quite harrowing to see him in this state as the play begins. Daughter Molly (Jennifer Welwright) urges him to speak and so he narrates to her (and to us) his tales of wonders. Chris Jack is an appealing Gulliver, the voice of reason in each mad land he visits. He learns lots about human nature and society – most of it negative. It’s not a pretty picture. The flying island’s policy of bombing people who disagree into submission is particularly disturbing and idiotic. Gulliver is stunned – he would pitch a fit if he knew that the world today, as run by humans, hasn’t changed at all since Swift’s day. As a foreigner in the land of the giants, Gulliver, a trained surgeon and educated man, is reduced to dancing on tabletops as a novelty act and regarded as sub-human. I’m sure many immigrant workers today would recognise this beastly treatment. Oh, technology has improved and fashion has got worse, but basically people and politics are still the same.
The glimmer of hope for a better world comes in the Land of the Houyhnhnms, where horses rule over brutish humans (Swift gave us the word “Yahoo”). Here, conflict is disdained rather than sought. Gulliver longs to go back, despite the Houyhnhnms insistence that he is worse than Yahoo, because he can think and feel and yet is still bellicose and full of anger. The Houyhnhnms suggest we can rise above our baser instincts and aspire to Utopia. We are still a long way off, folks.
Chris Jack is an appealing Gulliver, emanating warmth and narrating with a rich, evocative voice. Also impressive are Jim Findley and Becky Matter in a variety of roles, and Jennifer Welwright is touching as Molly and the giantess Glumdalclitch. Duncan Chave’s atmospheric music is delightfully performed by Yvonna Magda, and Nettie Scriven’s design is elegant and stylish. The costumes are beautiful, adding to the conjuring of Gulliver’s bygone era but above all, this absorbing and entertaining production reminds us of the state of our world today. We must not let the Yahoos and the mental midgets continue to have their way.