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Gulliver's Travels - Silviu Purcarete Returns

The Sibiu International Theatre Festival is in full swing, and outside
the Radu Stanca National Theatre of Sibiu, Romania, the crowds are
gathering. The reason is the world première of Gulliver's Travels,
Romanian wunderkind Silviu Purcarete's latest epic reimagining of
classic literature. Outside the theatre, the building's doors are
flanked either side by two life-size cut-outs of cartoon knights in
shining armour, with large holes where their faces should be, enabling
passers-by to put their heads through. The effect is of a seaside pier
sideshow, made even more so by the pair of extravagantly frocked
damsels drumming up trade for photo opportunities beside them.

While at first glance this stunt might look like a conceptual gag to
accompany Purcarete's production, which arrives opens this week as part
of Edinburgh International Festival's theatre programme, on closer
scrutiny it becomes clear that all this is an elaborately staged ad for
a well-known brand of cleaning fluid, the manufacturers of which are
sponsoring the show.

On a wall at the side of the theatre, the contradictory relationship
between art and commerce is made even more explicit via a series of
crudely pasted-up posters of satirical slogan-adorned drawings.
'Culture s Good/Crisis Culture Is Good' reads one atop a picture of two
figures, one displaying his two empty trouser pockets, the other
sporting a crown and presumably playing the king for all he's worth.

Onstage, several young women dressed in jodhpurs and bridles whinny and
clip-clop their way about a hay-strewn stage, impersonating horses.
Later, giant rats rut for all they're worth. A row of bowler-hatted men
in suits and carrying umbrellas and brief-cases waddle on like
penguins, lining up before a little boy on a wooden rocking horse who
watches much of the action unfold around him while a deep baritone
voice narrates a tale that appears to reference the global recession
and capitalism in crisis during one man's journey around a very strange
world indeed.

There are some recognisably Purcarete style dramatic tics and tricks in
what is more a theatrical collage than a play, staged, unlike his
mammoth version of Faust that promenaded its audience through
Edinburgh's Royal Highland Centre in EIF 2009, in a regular proscenium
arch theatre. This barely contains Purcarete's ideas made flesh by a
large-scale ensemble cast, who include Ofelia Poppi, who played
Mephistopheles so fearlessly in Faust.

What isn't familiar are all the received notions of what Jonathan
Swift's nineteenth century satire actually contains. There is no
Lilliput, and there are no little people pinning down a giant Gulliver,
images familiar from the numerous big-screen adaptations of the book,
the most recent of which came in 2010, featuring Jack Black as
Gulliver. With the action punctuated throughout by Irish composer Shaun
Davey's score, Purcarete has concentrated instead on the little-know
fourth part of the novel, A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms,
which features horses as the perfection of nature, while human beings
are debased creatures known as Yahoos. All of this is demonstrated via
the sort of  coup de theatre only Purcarete can get away with, albeit
one which it would be quite wrong to reveal here.

Beyond the show's politics, there is some very Irish-looking slapstick
that more resembles something by Samuel Beckett than Purcarete's other
work. It is too clearly a very personal Gulliver's Travels. The little
boy onstage may represent a young Gulliver, who in turn becomes the
embodiment of Swift, but there is much of Purcarete in him too. In
Sibiu, at least, it was Purcarete's voice providing the narration,
while the simple pleasures the boy finds through playing with his toys
recalls the sledge treasured by a young Charles Foster Kane in Orson
Welles' seminal feature film, Citizen Kane. Unlike Welles' epic.
Purcarete's Gulliver's Travels is seen through a child's eye view
throughout.

The morning after the premiere, Purcarete sits in the office of Sibiu
International Theatre Festival director, Constantin Chiriac, who
founded  festival nineteen years ago, and has developed it into one of
the largest theatre festivals in the world. If Chiriac is the
embodiment of east European largesse, Purcarete is a shy, modest
figure. While not without a dry wit, he prefers to let his work onstage
do his talking for him.

“From the beginning it was clear we were not going to do a full
dramatisation of the novel,” he mutters through his beard. “That would
be impossible. The initial proposal was that we should make a poetic
performance inspired by the book, and mainly from the fourth book,
which nobody knows. Even in our country, there is a short version of
Gulliver's Travels for children, which everybody knows, and nobody
knows anything else. The message of this show is please go and read
this book.”

It wasn't Purcarete's idea to tackle Gulliver's Travels. The initial
proposal came from partners in Ireland and Edinburgh as a direct result
of the response to Faust. While Purcarete appears to shrug off any
international pressures, he's happy to admit that audience reaction
closer to home is more of a concern.

“We were more scared here,” he says, as the festival goes on beyond the
theatre office. “Most of the people here come to see Gulliver and the
dwarfs. They come to see the story of their childhood which they know
through Gulliver, and  think they may become shocked and angry by what
they see, and will forget the fact that they never read this book. But
it is not only from the fourth book. We use parts from the other books,
like the cannibalism of children, and the poem about prostitutes in
Drury Lane. We have a fragment of his epitaph, and it's more about
Jonathan Swift than it is about Gulliver.”

Outside the theatre below, rain has given way to lunchtime sunshine,
which has brought Sibiu's incoming theatre-goers onto the streets. The
brightly-frocked damsels are still touting for trade to get their
picture taken posing as knights with the sponsors hoardings. Around the
corner, the makeshift anti-capitalist fly-posters flap about in the
breeze.

Upstairs, Purcarete is musing on life beyond Gulliver's Travels. There
are rumours that Purcarete will be tackling another Irishman's even
more fantastical novel in the form of Ulysses, by James Joyce. It is,
however, a rumour he's keen to play down.

“This is a legend for the future,” he says. “For now, let's just think
about Gulliver.”

Gulliver's Travels, Kings Theatre, Aug 17th-20th, 7.30pm, Aug 19th,
2.30pm
www.eif.co.uk
The Herald, August 17th 2012

ends

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