Peacock Theatre, Dublin
Lemuel Gulliver is most often associated with two lands – one of them minute to the point of imperceptibility; the other so giant it can be overwhelming. These, of course, are the lands of social satire and literary fantasy, deliciously combined in Jonathan Swift’s most celebrated work, where startling faraway figures are magnifications of problems closer to home.
In adaptation, however, the outlandish dimensions of the fable quickly swamp its purpose, fixating more on the images of Gulliver’s journey while losing sight of Swift’s destination.
Conall Morrison’s brisk adaptation for the National Youth Theatre doesn’t quite sharpen the edge of Swift’s moral satire, but under his playful and imaginative direction a young cast returns some creative disruption to the fable.
We begin, appropriately, with an upheaval, when the fusty conductor of a recital of Handel's Messiah (gamely played by music director Conor Linehan), is put off his marks by distractible youngsters. Cue the arrival of Swift himself (a stern Luke Casserly), to denounce them as "Yahoos" and usher everyone into an abridged retelling of his fiction, decorated with salient Swiftian quotations.
Those loosely acquainted with Gulliver will be reassured by the appearance of Lilliputians, small of stature and mind (their scale neatly suggested by dwarfing video projections of James O'Neill's giant Gulliver) and his more humbling experience in the giant land of Brobdingnag, where Gulliver is now played by Adrian McCarthy and a nimbly manipulated puppet.
Most of the production's energy is invested in (as Swift puts it) "false lights, refracted angles, varnish and tinsel", which is to say the appealingly exposed mechanics of stage illusion. That means all scatological humour is indulged in with nose-wrinkling crudity, but Morisson and choreographer Muirne Bloomer leave time for more elegant transports: the ensemble holding Gulliver aloft under shimmering light as he dives into the Lilliputian sea; a rolling wave of white sheets to summon up a sea storm; or a beautiful choral accompaniment that drifts around his airborne escape from Brobdingag.
By comparison, the satirical swipes are broad to the point of sarcasm (“Our treasury is a model of prudent practice”), and the real surprise of this short performance is to discover the team setting course, finally, for a world more spiritual.
It is beautifully and musically served, yet – like Swift – the production is most convincing with a whiff of the profane. Or, as Gulliver puts it while jubilant Lilliputians gawp up at his disintegrating breeches, when it affords “some opportunities for laughter, consternation and admiration”. Until tomorrow, then at the Everyman, Cork, September 5-7