Arminta Wallace, The Irish Times,
The Big Job of Creating Small People
IT’S A PRETTY big tale to stage. There’s a land of giants, a land of tiny people and a land of horses. There are royal processions and sea battles. “Every scene is asking the audience to imagine the impossible and tell the story of the fantastical,” says Alice Coghlan, who has adapted and directed the production of Gulliver’s Travels which is currently on stage at Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin.
It’s a fast-moving show, with 38 scenes packed into 90 minutes as five actors and more than twice as many backstage designers and manipulators use a mixture of puppeteering, physical theatre and perspective trickery to recreate Jonathan Swift’s classic satire. “We’ve left out the floating island,” Coghlan admits. “But only because we’re trying to keep the running time to a length where children will still be paying attention.”
Not that there isn’t plenty to catch the eye. “In the book the giants are as tall as churches – 60 feet tall,” she says. “I have an image of Liberty Hall in my mind as I say that. It’s such a relief when we do the scenes with Gulliver’s family; all the people are the same height, and there are no talking animals or whatever else. Because we can’t put 3D glasses on the audience like they do at the cinema.”
The project came about through Coghlan’s company, Wonderland, being in residence at Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray, Co Wicklow. “They wanted a big family show,” she explains. “I had this idea that Gulliver’s Travels was relevant to the contemporary situation in Ireland. Then, basically, they said ‘do it’. We did three development weeks over the course of 2010, and it became clear that it was definitely a puppet show.” But they decided to use actors as well, partly to help the audience visualise the differences of scale in the story, partly because actors can convey a great deal more than puppets in terms of emotions, facial expressions and so forth.
Where do you startwhen you are adapting an early 18th-century text for the stage? Coghlan has already adapted Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray for Wonderland, using about 20 per cent of the book as dramatic text. Wilde, however, is generous with his dialogue. Swift isn’t. “I would never presume to be a better writer than Jonathan Swift,” she says. “But we had to invent the dialogue because there’s hardly any of it in Gulliver’s Travels . So I do feel, to some extent, that I have written a play. I wanted to preserve the flavour of Swift’s language – but for a family audience, we can’t use too many big words or arcane expressions, or the children would be left behind.”
Swift’s satire, however, is bang up to date. “So much of what he says is about the human condition – about human frailty and weakness – that you feel like he’s writing for now,” says Coghlan. She isn’t the first to spot this. The vicious civil war in Lilliput between the Big-endians and the Little-endians, over whether a boiled egg should be opened at one end or the other, has given rise to a feature in computer software known as “endian-ness”. For Swift, says Coghlan, the boiled egg business was a question of religious belief versus fundamentalism.
“The Lilliputians were really talking about God being at the centre of rule and kingliness. But all their talk about ‘God is on our side’ – as I was writing that, I could just hear the voices of Blair and Bush and all that stuff in my head, so it became incredibly contemporary for me. Swift was very anti-war, and I think a modern audience can really connect with that.”
Reducing politicians to the size of six-inch dolls is also, she says, a fruitful satiric strategy. “To see human pomposity reduced to that level, and how endlessly pathetic the Lilliputians are. They love long words and big phrases – which is, again, very like modern politicians – and long, long titles. The king is introduced with about 18 of the most florid adjectives before you finally say his name. So a lot of it does remind me of modern politics. It’s just kind of sad that Swift said all he had to say in the 1720s, and nothing has really changed in the meantime.”
Coghlan invited three different stage designers to work on the “worlds” in the piece. Thus Lilliput has a bright, playing-card sort of look while Brobdingnag, the land of giants, is styled like something from Nordic mythology. “It’s like making three different shows and then pushing them into one,” she says. How, then, do they ensure that the whole thing hangs together? “We’ve picked up on something that’s almost comic in the book, which is that Gulliver keeps getting shipwrecked in various forms. He escapes from Lilliput; he’s rescued; then he gets left behind on a beach. The sea is the link.
“We also laugh at that with the audience, because it’s getting so ridiculous. Like, he’s rescued by a boat called The Swift . This guy’s just a bit too lucky. Although I did hear once there was somebody who was rescued from both the Lusitania and the Titanic – so it can happen.”
Wonderland is going to have a busy year in 2011. Gulliver’s Travels will be at Smock Alley until the end of the month, and dates are already planned at the Riverbank Arts Centre in Newbridge, Co Kildare and the Town Hall Theatre, Galway in March. The Picture of Dorian Gray will be back at Bewley’s Cafe Theatre for a third stint in April, and next week the company’s production of Goldoni’s comedy La Locandiera returns to the Campo di Fiori restaurant in Bray. “That’s by popular demand, which is fantastic,” says Coghlan. “It will be our third time going around Wicklow. That’s all to do with our residency, that we take our work around the county. Our dinner shows can go anywhere there’s a restaurant or a hotel. The hope is that that will connect us to audiences and to other shows.”
Meanwhile, Gulliver’s Travels is going with a bang. Or, as Coghlan puts it, “plenty of bangs – like the movies. Children think much more pictorially, so I felt there had to be something very clearly happening visually all the time, as well as what the text was doing. Our puppets do things that people can’t. They fly up into the air, or do slightly crazy spirals.
“I saw a programme about Roald Dahl while we were rehearsing, and he said that to keep children interested you need two events a page. I think he was about right.”
Wonderland’s Gulliver’s Travels is at Smock Alley until January 22
Valerie Shanley, Sunday Tribune ( 15th January 2011)
When breaking an egg, which is the correct end? On such matters do wars begin, as when the tiny Emperor of Lilliput orders Lemuel Gulliver to lead his Little-Endians into battle against the Big-Endians of Blefuscu. Jonathan Swift’s 1725 satire takes many a swipe at the religious wars between Protestants and Catholics of that era.
Wonderland’s production, with an ensemble cast of just five talented actors using puppets, models and shadow play is fast moving, funny and frequently bawdy – as when Gulliver (Nathan Gordon) is disgraced for quenching the fire on the Empress’ boudoir by peeing on it from a great height. The confines of Smock Alley Theatre makes the audience really feel part of our hero’s journey.
Fetched up in Brobdingnag our former “Man Mountain” is reduced to a grildig (midget) and becomes the plaything of Glumdalclitch (Roseanne Lynch) – a little girl of 60 feet in height. The cast are at their physical comedy best when Gulliver reaches the land of the Yahoo with the sad realisation that he’s worryingly similar to these grunting, scratching creatures.
By comparison, the Houyhnhnms are noble and civilised, and Gulliver wishes nothing more than to stay and eat with them, and discuss why lying has no part in their language.
Although written almost 300 years ago, the belief that there are those in power “who say the thing which is not” still resonates. All credit to director Alice Coghlan for highlighting the horse sense as well as humour in Swift’s timeless classic.
Dave Madden, DublinCulture.ie
The first act is about Gulliver’s most well-known adventures, his visits to Lilliput and Brobdingnag. On Lilliput, he towers over the tiny inhabitants; on Brobdingnag, the locals are giants and he is treated as a silly amusement. In both cases the play uses puppetry to represent the interaction between characters of very different sizes. The costumes are very nicely done, matching up the actors with the corresponding puppets. I also appreciated that Gulliver is presented credibly as a man of his time – sometimes in fiction the protagonist seems like a modern 21st century person put incongruously into a historical setting. I do have one slight criticism: during the Lilliputian part of the play there were a few moments when I wondered if the pace might be too slow for the kids in the audience. (Glancing around, my impression was that that concern was unfounded.)
The second act is set in the land of the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnm; a land where horses can speak, and humans are dumb, ignorant savages. I thoroughly enjoyed this part of the play – it’s excellent on all levels, and the audience were enraptured, children and adults alike. The actors’ representation of the equine movement of the Houyhnhnm was especially good. (Forget two-man horse-costumes, this is how it should be done.)
Wonderland Theatre can be proud of this production. They’ve taken on an extremely hard challenge and created an enjoyable show. It might be a little slow at times in the first act but the Houyhnhnm make up for that.