Gulliver Travels to The MAC

Big Telly Theatre Company's first co-production with the Belfast venue takes the literary explorer to all new territory

If you think you know the story of Gulliver’s Travels, then you might want to catch the latest play by Big Telly Theatre Co, which opens at The MAC on September 29. Simply entitled Gulliver, the ever inventive team from Portstewart has got something very different up their sleeves for fans of the literary explorer, with an action-packed tale that will appeal to all the family.

Indeed, this latest adaptation of the Jonathan Swift classic is more of a sequel, says co-writer and producer, Zoe Seaton, who penned the script along with Shelley Atkinson, aka Gulliver’s wife. If you want to visit the land of Lilliput however, fear not, because in spite of the story starting with Gulliver’s return from Houyhnhnms Land, it also features flashbacks of his other journeys.

'After his fourth trip – to Houyhnhnms Land, or the Land of the Horses – he’s been utterly brainwashed into believing humans are disgusting,' says Seaton. 'He wants to stay there forever because he wants to become a horse, but he gets sent home because he’s too human. Then he decides he’s going to convert everyone into horses.

'In the book, he says it took him five years to be able to be with his wife and family after that trip, so we decided to look at his rehabilitation when he comes back and can’t bear humans.' 

Cue all sorts of bizarre events, as Gulliver tries to convince people to turn into horses – with such eventual success that many actually start listening to him. Still believing himself to be a horse, he also demands his own groomer, while the audience is treated to flashbacks of his other curious journeys along the way.

Suffice it to say, Gulliver is as packed full of capers and comedy as any Big Telly production usually is. But as always, there’s much more to a Big Telly show than just comedy.

Gulliver at the MAC 2

'I think it’s funny but as with quite a lot of our work, there's an underbelly and a dark side to it,' says Seaton. 'We’re aware of the ridiculousness of the horse situation, but we’re also interested in the reality of how a family deals with a ridiculous situation.

'It’s looking at how this family has been impacted by Gulliver, and how they deal with him. Also, the extent to which people are prepared to go along with him. For example, when he wants to make them into horses.

'We find out how his journeys away have influenced his family and in a way it's also about having an absentee dad. All of Gulliver’s children are massively different, but massively affected by his travels.'

Indeed, after each journey, Gulliver returns and has a child, with the result that each is very noticeably influenced by where their father has just come from. His first trip to Lilliput inspires his eldest daughter to become an explorer, while his second child – a son – becomes a dancer, after Gulliver returns from Brobdingnag, where he was forced to perform.

His third trip took him to the floating island of Laputa, where science experiments were conducted and so, Gulliver’s third child is half human and half robot. 'She’s like a webcam and we can observe experiences through her in the play,' says Seaton. 'It’s quite a technical production and film is used in lots of different ways.'

Gulliver also explores identity issues, and how people cope with moving away from and back to their homes. Indeed, living in an increasingly transient society as we do, Seaton and Atkinson have drawn on this current phenomenon to add flesh to their story. They show the impact on people who are left behind through their depiction of Gulliver’s family, and the difficulties which can be experienced by those returning home, through their portrayal of Gulliver himself.

'Also, when you come home, you can reinvent yourself,' says Seaton. 'We’re interested in that tension – how you edit your experiences - and we’re interested in identity. Gulliver’s daughter believes people don’t allow you to be contradictory. She sees identity as a trap in that sense and she refuses to be labelled.'

Although Seaton admits that there's 'an awful lot' packed into the play, this can surely only be to the audience’s advantage, with so many stories woven into the fabric of the production. From Gulliver and his wife, to their quirky children, the people he tries to convert to Houyhnhnmism and some visiting Lilliputians… there’s something to hook everyone’s interest.

'I think it will be good fun,' says Seaton. 'It’s changing a lot along the way, but our six actors have been great to work with.' The cast, it should be said, includes Bryan Quinn (Gulliver); Patrick J O’Reilly (son Johnny); Shelley Atkinson (Mum); Nicky Harley (daughter Betty); Helen Roche (Granny) and Brendan Conroy (Jim).

Seaton adds: 'We're working closely with a fight choreographer, filmmaker and composer to make a piece of theatre which is visual and action-packed, contains satire and wit, and lots of laugh out loud moments.'

Gulliver premieres at The MAC on September 29, running until October 17 before touring around Northern Ireland, Ireland and the UK. For more information and booking visit www.themaclive.com.