Gulliver’s Travels, Kings Theatre, Edinburgh


A neighing woman with a tail and mane leads a real horse onto the straw-strewn stage. Radu Stanca National Theatre of Sibiu is famous for its epic productions and vast ensembles; to compensate for this regular sized stage and manageable cast (just the 18), Silviu Purcărete adds a four-legged extra.

This is just one of the visual extravagances in Purcărete’s freehand adaptation of Swift’s 18th century satire. The opposite of the jolly children’s tale - although he presents the series of tableaux as seen through the eyes of a little boy - the visionary Romanian director roots his version in the often neglected fourth part of the book. Here Gulliver visits the land of the Houyhnhnms, where horses are worshipped for their beauty and Yahoos are debased human beings.

Gulliver’s encounters with giants and little people are quickly dealt with in clever shadowplay vignettes. Purcărete spends more time on Swift’s satirical essay A Modest Proposal, in which he suggests the Irish should eat their own children. A crowd of women, babies hanging from their skirts and piled in a wheelbarrow, pile their infants high on a hospital trolley. A chef selects one, silences its crying with a hammer, eviscerates it and throws the entrails onto a smoking hotplate.

The highly-drilled cast speak few words. Some text is translated from Romanian, other snippets have supertitles. That, combined with the episodic structure and Irish composer Shaun Davey’s eclectic score, gives the production a balletic feel. The images do the talking: rows of besuited bankers march in formation, sit down, open their briefcases, crack hard-boiled eggs on their heads and eat them. Two huge rats scurry across the stage, so disgusted by the humans they don’t even eat them.

Purcărete uses on old-school theatrics and sleight of hand to great effect: a woman giving birth over a bucket, a beheading, a row of Lilliputian gaudy women preening and flirting are all created with the repertory techniques of the last century. The minimal set - a Karla Black-style plastic curtain, straw, hospital beds reminiscent of the orphanages of the Ceausescu era - leaves the stage clear for the director’s imagination to unfold.

It might not be recognisable as Gulliver’s journey but this production’s black humour and fearless showmanship are in the spirit, if not the letter, of Swift.