Little big man
How do you stage a work of fantasy whose characters include midgets. giants and talking horses? And what modern satirist could match Jonathan Swift‘s scurrilous and bizarre imagination? Director Roger Redfarn and designer Ralph Steadman map out Gulliver Is Travels for Andrew Buruet.
Everyone knows Lemuel Gulliver to be a shipwreck survivor washed up on the shores of Lilliput. whose six-ineh-higb citizens tie him to the earth. and go to war over the proper way to eat eggs. Most people
remember his subsequent adventures in Brobdingnag.
where the folk are ‘as tall as an ordinary spire- steeplc'. and Gulliver almost drowns in a bowl of cream. But the second half of Gulliver's Travels — in which our hero explores the ﬂying island of Laputa and its neighbours. then meets the equine llouyhnhnms and their savage human slaves the Yalroos »— is often ignored by those unfamiliar with the book. The fairy-taleisation of Jonathan Swift‘s greatest work. published in I726, doesn‘t just ignore two of Gulliver's most intriguing adventures; it also draws attention from the novel's many-laeeted. ribald and humane satire.
North Wales‘s leading company Theatr Clwyd, who bring their version to Edinburgh this fortnight. happened upon (Iii/liver Is 'l‘ravels while trawling through the ‘family sbow' roster (their back catalogue includes ll’im/ lll the Willows and The ll'isaril (g/'():). But although the show has been marketed for young audiences. with a script by Humphrey Carpenter. best known for the children's television series Mr Majeika. director Roger Redfam agrees it's pretty grown-up stuff. ‘lt's not really a children‘s story. though there is a preconceived idea that it is. Sleaze. liberty. people being trodden on and persecuted. man's treatment of man — all those things come into it. and I hope we touch on those.
‘lt's a very good way of opening up a novel that is famous and does have a reputation but isn't widely read. I think what we‘ve done is much more illuminating than if we had done something like a Disney cartoon version, you know. with a swashbuckling hero and everybody pretty-pretty and set in a period..
Without speciﬁcally modernising the story to the present. the production has a distinctly millennial feel. Originally a ship's surgeon. Gulliver — played by the charismatic actor/writer Jack Klaff — has become an overworked NHS housernan. More obviously. Gulliver the sailor has turned surfer.
contacting these strange new worlds via the lntemet. l
A giant computer screen solved several difficulties in the adaptation. but a few problems still remained —
r: I a .
spearheads Theatr Clwyd’s voyage lnto Gulllver‘s Travels
To boldly go: Jack Klall
little ones like Lilliputians. and big ones like Brobdingnagians. to say nothing of nagging doubts over the Houyhnhmns. Enter Ralph Steadman.
‘I got a fax from Humphrey Carpenter saying. “Ralph. can you possibly think ofdoing the costumes? Please say yes, otherwise l‘nr in the shit." I spent most of the summer on the wretched thing.‘
Widely known for his delightfully grotesque, ink- blotchcd style. his demolition jobs on politicians of most hues. his long collaboration with leading American satirist Hunter S. Thompson, and his visually extravagant interpretations of Stevenson‘s 'I‘reasure Island and Orwell's Animal Farm. Steadman had dabbled his paintbrush in theatrical waters before. but didn‘t expect to find himselfquite so embroiled in the business of assembling sets and costumes. He received invaluable help from his daughter Sadie — now working on the production — and the set and costume departments seemed to enjoy
the challenges he set them. but did the experience put him offthe theatre?
‘Oh yes. definitely,‘ he replies. ‘Everything puts me off everything. Till the next time. Tenible way to live I know. but it's my attitude to life generally - slightly awkward. slightly at odds with myself.’
Obviously. Steadman was in his element with Swift. and bizarre visual treats are in store for audiences of all ages (Redfam recommends nine years upwards). But for all the lavish oddness of the production - the actors had to spend two days just getting used to the costumes — the central theme of Steadman's design cannot escape notice. Every costume features either a ribcage or a pelvic girdle. or both. ‘The story is so layered with extraordinary metaphors.’ explains Steadman. ‘Swift’s way of being able to get at society without losing his head — I mean literally losing his head - was to couch everything in this fantasy world. so he could say. “well. it's not meant to be you. Your Majesty." My idea was to remind everybody that no matter how weird the characters are they're still human beings. It's a way of saying, no matter what I do or how strange I make things. basically it's a human being. it's still us in another guise.’
But isn't the skeleton the grotesque. frightening part of ourselves; the part we’d rather pretend wasn't there?
‘ls it‘." chuckles Steadman. genuinely surprised. ‘I wonder if Freud would have anything to say about that‘."
With nearly a hundred drawings under his belt. and Seeker & Warburg on his case for another book. Steadman is considering an illustrated edition ofthe novel. He's been toying with the idea for thirty-odd years. but still isn't sure. ‘lt's become such a big and
cumbersome idea that I don‘t know if I can deal with
it.‘ he laments.
Perhaps the best judge of that will be the audiences who witness Theatr Clwyd’s unique interpretation. complete with abseiling wasps, policemen in yellow high-heels. a trapeze-ﬂying newsreader and, of course. those bony reminders of humanity.
Gulliver's Travels. Theatr C lwyd. Edinburgh Festival Theatre. Tue 23—Sat 27 Jan.
Does not compute: Ralph Steadman's vlslon at a techno-pool from laputa
The List 12-25 Jan I996 59