Savage and funny adaptation of Swift’s satire
This article is from 2012.
The Victorians considered Gulliver's Travels a kid's book, chortling at the notion of a big man in a tiny world and quietly omitting Gulliver's horrified realisation that the bestial Yahoos are in fact human. That uncomfortable final part of the book is where the Radu Stanca National Theatre of Sibiu theatre version lives.
Director Silviu Purcarete cheerfully admits that this isn't an 'adaptation'. It's a fantasia on Swiftian themes, a series of episodes depicting people as, well, yahoos: touchy, competitive, herd-minded, callous, violent and disgusting. It's also enormously and sulphurously entertaining, not to mention funnier and more generous than the source material. One scene, a riff on A Modest Proposal featuring a working hotplate, winds its way to a punchline which suggests that humans are so vile that even rats can't stomach them. Lilliput and Brobdingnag, which would normally be most of the show, whip past in a brief, unforgettable bit of shadow play. It climaxes in an orgy of comic dismemberment that uses old-school theatre gags to depict heads ripped off and organs pulled out – and then wiped in the former owner's face.
Yet Sibiu dramatise Swift's own misanthropy, pitying rather than endorsing it. The poem ‘A Beautiful Young Nymph Going To Bed’ is self-consciously mean-minded cabaret, suggesting that what Swift thought of as honesty was in fact misogyny. Elsewhere, images of a nightmarish hospital can't help reminding us of Ceausescu-era Romania, where what looked like satirical exaggeration is mere realism. There are quiet hints of the curiosity and compassion that Swift claimed people lacked.
The pacing and invention are extraordinary; the ensemble is as skilled and cohesive a company as you'll ever see. Samuel Johnson, that slightly more lovable grump of English Literature, spelled this show's central theme in his great poem ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’: 'And Swift expires a Driv'ler and a Show.'
Yeah. But what a show.
King’s Theatre, 473 2000, until 20 Aug, 8pm (matinee 19 Aug, 2.30pm) £12–£30.