Riffing on Gulliver’s Travels

Composer Shaun Davey says his new musical dips in and out of Jonathan Swift’s most famous book, reports Richard Fitzpatrick

Riffing on Gulliver’s Travels

COMPOSER Shaun Davey has teamed up with renowned Romanian director, Silviu Purcarete, and the Radu Stanca National Theatre of Sibiu, for Gulliver’s Travels, which opens today at the Edinburgh International Festival, thanks to funding from Culture Ireland.

Purcarete and his team were feted at the festival in 2009 for their working of Faust. Davey and Purcarete were brought together by John Fairleigh, the chairman of the Ireland-Romania Cultural Foundation. Their collaboration, which premiered at the end of May at the Sibiu International Theatre Festival, is an interpretation of the works of Jonathan Swift, not a retelling of Gulliver’s Travels.

“There is no sequential story. There is a series of tableaux inspired by the writings of Swift. For example, it includes a poem that Swift wrote, called Corinna, about a Drury Lane prostitute whose attractions were all artificial. When she went to bed at night, she had to take out her false teeth and her false eye, et cetera,” Davey says.

“I think, initially, Purcarete had difficulty with the bleakness of Swift’s vision in Gulliver’s Travels. Everybody knows about Gulliver the giant, Gulliver the midget, but in books III and IV, you have very difficult images, such as horses that are superior to humans and humans that are inferior to horses, which, of course, was Swift’s satire on the human condition.”

Davey and Purcarete use Latin as a compromise tongue for the text, which is sung. The production has a cast of 17. Unlike Purcarete’s gargantuan Faust, this production is set in a conventional theatre, the charming, old King’s Theatre.

“I would advise the audience to look very closely at the floor,” says Davey, as set designer Drago Buhagiar is known for his clever staging tricks. “The evening opens with the floor of the stage covered in straw. They should keep an eye on what emerges from beneath it.”

The production also includes a live horse on stage. “I had the most unique music rehearsal I’ve ever had,” says Davey. “We were rehearsing one of the psalms on stage. Purcarete was in the background and the stage manager came and asked if we’d mind if the horse came on stage while we were doing our music rehearsal, and, ‘please,’ he added, ‘would we not stop doing the music when the horse came on, so the horse could get used to the situation’.”

“One of the first acts that the horse — a very large, pregnant mare — committed when she came on stage was to urinate hugely on the boards, as we were trying to rehearse music. As Purcarete said, ‘she apologised afterwards for the unique aroma she supplied during the music rehearsals’.”

Davey was friendly with Dónal Lunny and sat in on Planxty rehearsals; he lived in flats in the same building as piper Liam O’Flynn, on Mount Street in Dublin, and later collaborated with O’Flynn on The Brendan Voyage, inspired by Tim Severin’s re-creation of St Brendan’s transatlantic journey.

“It was an extraordinary story,” says Davey. “I was very keen to see if the sound of the uilleann pipes, and the playing of the uilleann pipes, could work with the sounds of an orchestra. Also, at the same time, I was asked to do a piece by Harry Bradshaw, an RTÉ radio producer, who was interested in music that was inspired by books and texts. There were neat things, too: like, it was a leather-and-timber boat and the uilleann pipes are leather and wood — a medieval type of instrument in a modern setting; a medieval boat in the 20th century trying to do the same voyage as St Brendan.”

Davey has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, on- and off-Broadway, and his work was performed at the inauguration of President Michael D Higgins.

“I always feel,” he says, “that I’m doing my job well if what I’m working on, at the moment, excites me — then, I feel that I’m doing what I should be doing. It doesn’t always have to be breaking new ground. It needs to be the best I can possibly do. We’ll see what happens to Gulliver’s Travels in Edinburgh. Inevitably, it’ll get mixed reviews, but I love this production.”

* Gulliver’s Travels, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Friday, Aug 17 — Monday, Aug 20; www.eif.co.uk

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