Friday, December 17, 2010

Theatre review: Gulliver's Travels

Earlier in the week I spoke to Emma Fisher, the set and puppets designer for a new production of Gulliver's Travels. The play sounded fun so yesterday I headed down to Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray to see the opening night's show.

Wonderland Theatre have taken on a very daring project for themselves. Gulliver's Travels may be an abiding classic, but turning an 18th century satire into a modern family-friendly stage-show is always going to be a challenge. And how were they to represent within the confines of a theatre the strange encounters of Gulliver's journeys? Wonderland's answer: puppets, countless quick costume changes, song, and dollops of imagination.

Picture courtesy of Stephen Delaney


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.)

During the interval I had a wander around Mermaid Arts Centre. It's similar to the Project Arts Centre concept of mixing theatre with other art forms, and there's an interesting and clever current-affairs-themed exhibition on upstairs. It's a rare thing for an art gallery to advertise using a Warren Buffett quote.

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.

There's one more show in Mermaid Arts, a matinee on Saturday 18th at 15:00. Tickets are €15, or €50 for a family of four. Then in the new year the main run of the play is on in Smock Alley Theatre, from 3rd January to 21st January.

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