Gulliver’s Travels @ Smock Alley

January 19, 2011

Another director embracing the aesthetic demands of her production is Alice Coughlan whose staging of Gulliver’s Travels is at Smock Alley Studio till the end of January. Featuring giants, midgets and wise sage like horses who posses the ability to talk, the show uses puppetry, mask and shadow play to compensate for the differing statures of the characters while taking a make and do approach to the set pieces. The high seas rise via a blue sheet, large ships are insinuated by planks of wood and toy birds substitute for the real thing.

There are songs dispersed throughout, some wonderful costumes by four different costume designers and a sound design that can, at times, drown out the performers. A variety of obtuse accents further hamper what’s being said while a dumbed down approach to the performances makes the whole thing seem quite sing songy with little effort to explore what the vengeful Lilliputians, the exploitative Brobdingnagians or the aloof Houyhnhnms might represent.

The problem is that in trying to show us so much Coughlan tells us very little, moving from one stage of the story to the next with no sense of what the author might be trying to say or what the character of Gulliver (or us the audience) might take from each situation. There is no development in Nathan Gordon’s titular performance as he walks us through the plot, not fully devoid of charm but devoid of the requisite charm to engage us and make us root and feel for him. From monster to miniature he makes no moves to physically adapt or show us how the change in circumstance affects him. His outward disposition never changes. There’s no sign of the wanderlust, the revulsion or the sadness that sparks each voyage, he is as sunny in the opening scene as he is in the penultimate one and every curse that befalls him is greeted with the same doe eyed curiosity.

The supporting cast-Sarah Kinlen, Roseanne Lynch, Graeme Singleton and Fra Gunn- are better at the physical than the personal. The final scenes between the Yahoo’s and the Houyhnhnms are a joy to watch, but one feels if Coughlan had spent more time developing the characters in the early segments (particularly Gulliver’s wife, children and crew mates), and less time on having her actors play with dolls, the show would have more of an emotional core for the puppets and caricatures to revolve around.

The biggest problem facing this piece is that it doesn’t seem to quite know what its aim is. It’s like they are trying to piss down both legs of their trousers by setting the whole thing up as a children’s bed time story but then, jarringly, throwing some crude humor at the adults. At the same time it glosses quickly over any adult themes and leave us ill equipped to handle the tragic ending. With a clearer vision and a larger-or more experienced – cast this piece could work but as it is it’s a case of too little doing too much. While Coughlan’s ambition and imagination can’t be faulted it needs to be restrained so that it doesn’t overwhelm the story she is trying to tell.

Smock Alley Theatre 3rd – 22nd January 2011
Evening Performances: Tuesday – Saturday at 7pm: Tickets from 12/18/49.50
Matinees: Saturday and Sundays at 2pm: Tickets 9.50/16/44
Riverbank Arts Centre, Newbridge, Co. Kildare: 12th March 2011 Ph: 045 448330
Town Hall Theatre, Galway: 23rd – 24th March 2011 Ph: 091 569777

all photo credits to Stephen Delaney


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