A group of actors are discovered on stage, straw tails attached to their rears, pawing the ground, whinnying and only a little cowed when an actual horse is brought amongst them.
With this small coup de theatre, Radu Stanca National Theatre of Sibiu, Romania, begins. The opening actors represent the Houyhnhnms, whose manners and customs are described in detail in the final part of Gulliver’s Travels.
It’s a good place to start in a production that tries to cover as much of Swift’s great satire as may be possible in ninety minutes.
The book’s timelines are fractured as Silviu Purcarete and his company attempt to explore the essence of Swift’s writings for the benefit of the rest of us.
Swift in old age quickly appears, accompanied by a boy whose wanderings through Swift’s imagination quickly becomes our only guide and point of reference in the world we are about to explore.
The range of theatrical devices and practices Purcarete and his company employ in this production are themselves impressive, the more so in the hands of such experienced and talented individuals.
Despite this, it’s not immediately clear where we may be going amidst so much theatricality. The opening sequence with the Houyhnhnm does prepare those of us familiar with at least the outline of Swift’s great satire for the disrupted narrative that follows, but only a little. Although it’s made clear that this production is for an adult audience, it seemed obvious from the nervous titters from some parts of the theatre that not everyone was prepared for what they were seeing.
Purcarete’s production utilises back-projection, shadow play, stilts and puppetry to make its points, and a cast of nearly twenty are fully occupied throughout in driving the play forward.
It really is a remarkable piece of theatre, although it can feel fleetingly that Swift’s narrative has been disrupted more for effect than for our illumination.
A radical conservative of contrarian opinion, Swift used Gulliver’s Travels at first as stick to beat political opponents and to question the Panglossian optimism of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, published in the same year as the first part of Gulliver’s Travels.
Like Cervantes before him, Swift used the later parts of his great work to different satiric ends. Although English by upbringing, Swift described himself as a ‘Teague’, and opposed England’s efforts to wage the kind of economic war with Ireland that was also being waged against Scotland at the same time. Thus the Houyhnhnm, rational to a fault, oppress the human-like Yahoo, who they regard as savages beyond law or reason.
Gulliver at first admires the Houyhnhnm, but eventually finds their relentless rationality more then he can bear. Returning to his own country, however, he finds even his own family disgust him when he considers the daily life of the civilised Houyhnhnm. Unable to live at home or abroad, he declines into misanthropic self-disgust.
Not a happy ending, then, and very far from the sanitised versions of Swift’s satire we offer to our children. This version by Radu Stanca National Theatre of Sibiu wonderfully rescues Swift’s masterpiece from this fate, even allowing for the (perhaps unnecessary) rein given to Swift’s undoubtedly male chauvinistic views.
Times: 12-20 August, 8pm