Gulliver's Travels

Premiere 19 June 1992
Venue The Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Gullivers Travels, a small man puppet and his visible manipulator, frightening an actor playing the queen, black and white

Gulliver's Travels , Handspan Theatre and Melbourne Theatre Company
Grildig, puppeteer Lizz Talbot with the Brobdingnagian Queen, Nadia Coreno

Photograph © Jeff Busby, 1992

This massive - indeed Brobdingnagian - project combines the Melbourne Theatre Company's stagecraft with the puppetry of David Baird's Handspan ... a dozen actors and puppeteers bring to life more than 60 characters. The three-hour production has four acts and 77 scenes.
Mike Daly The Age, Melbourne, 24 June, 1992

A Handspan Theatre and Melbourne Theatre Company collaboration was originally planned In 1989 to produce an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Although it went no further than early workshop development, the collaboration evolved into a new work, billed as the first complete staging of Gulliver's adventures1 .

By 1992, Handspan had a new Artistic Director, David Baird, replacing Trina Parker & Peter J.Wilson who had established the partnership with Melbourne Theatre Company and Andrew Bovell had been newly-appointed as writer-in-residence at MTC. These personnel changes in both organisations saw the project alter in concept and substance.

Handspan had previously staged GULLIVER'S TRAVELS with students at Kealba High School (1979)2 , and knew the work to be supremely suited to dramatisation with puppets. Swift plays with scale and fanciful image not only to tell his story, but to underline its socio-political commentary. On stage with puppet characters, large and small human replicas and anthropomorphised creatures, and costumed actors, his word pictures resonate in live action.

Gullivers Travels scriptwriter Andrew Bovell in front of large puppet eagle

Gulliver's Travels : Playwright Andrew Bovell with the Eagle. Puppeteers, from left, Lizz Talbot, Andrew Hansen, Peter J.Wilson and Annie Wylie
Photograph: Philip Castle, The Age, Melbourne, 24 June 1992
Click photos to enlarge

Bovell was excited by the work:

the underlying themes in the book are still relevant. What divides us now divides us then: politics and religion. Swift saw these problems as eternal and went through his own kind of misanthropic journey. Gulliver realises humanity is a nasty creature and tries to leave it behind, but in the end, he cannot.

Andrew Bovell interview, The Age, Melbourne, 24 June 1992

GULLIVER'S TRAVELS was an unusual co-production for Handspan. After Trina's departure and in the absence of Ken Evans and Philip Lethlean, Handpan had lost its key, experienced design leaders and with them much of its skill and capacity to co-create the work as a visual production. In the vacuum GULLIVER'S TRAVELS evolved as a play that 'used puppets' as characters in a story, rather than as essentially visual elements making their own drama.

The tall tale staged

Scriptwriter Andrew Bovell’s adaptation followed the narrative of the book. In four acts, Gulliver visited Lilliput, Brobdingnag, the Land of the Houyhnhnms and Laputa. Played by an actor, Andrew McFarlane, Gulliver experienced each world in abridged scenes from the original.

Angas Strathie, theatre designer, came to the production through the MTC. On an open stage, he blended quirkily costumed actors, puppets and their manipulators together to give characters a duality of scale and mobility that illustrated the ideological juxtapositions of Swift’s fantasy narrative.

Lilliputians in Act 1 appeared as celluloid dolls with stiff, limited movement: masked actors and puppets alike. Rows of miniature Lilliputians, seen through a window at court, set the scale of their world. Actor Lilliputians enacted scenes and voiced dialogue, and became puppets when meeting with Gulliver. At moments shadows of Gulliver loomed hugely over the small figures. His presence at the trial began with a large two-dimensional eye blinking at the reading of the Emperor’s rules.

Gulliver a seated actor in conversation with two rod puppet women with visible operators

In Lilliput: Gulliver, Andrew McFarlane with The Treasurer's Wife, Annie Wylie and Reldressal, Avril McQueen

Gulliver's Lilliputians in a line up of doll-like characters with celluloid face, ruffs and linked arms

In Lilliput: The arrest of the Treasurer's Wife, Merridy Eastman

Gulliver in a nightgown surprised by rat's tail not seeing the rat head behind him

In Brobdingnag: Gulliver/Grildig, Andrew McFarlane meets a rat
Photographs © Jeff Busby, 1992

In Act 2, when Gulliver is small and the Brobdingnagians giant-size, Gulliver himself was both puppet and human, known as Grildig to his captors. People from Brobdingnag were extravagantly stylised in absurdist, cartoonseque costumes. Grildig, the actor aped Grildig, the puppet, as he humiliated himself explaining ‘the game called war’ to the King. Found to be pompous and boastful, and shunned by the court Gulliver was snatched from the kingdom in a huge eagle’s talons.

In Acts 3 and 4 Laputians were represented in conical head-dress, and Houyhnhnms, in horse-head masks and flowing drapery. Without the need for scale comparison, the play‘s design allowed narrative text to take over for these scenes. Its imagery in the last acts was mostly in the absurdist costuming of actors and puppeteers.

There is no record of whether or not additional image elements were planned for the second half of the play perhaps they were unnecessary, or perhaps they were discarded as a difficult rehearsal process progressed. Their absence was noted and rued by Merilyn Minell who saw the play and its rehearsal many times and discussed it in her thesis, concluding: 'I believe there are scenes in these latter parts that could have made better use of puppets than they did'.3

Gulliver with Brobdingnagians 4 costumed characters looking at miniature puppet figure with 3 visible puppeteers

Grildig puppeteers Peter J.Wilson, Heather Monk, Lizz Talbot and Brobdingnagians, from left: Farmer, Jacek Koman & Maids of Honour, Mark Neil & Hugh Wayland

Gulliver in Laputa 3 people seated at table two with masked faces and point headdresses

In Laputa: Gulliver, Andrew McFarlane at table with Projectors, Hugh Wayland and Merridy Eastman (R)

Gulliver with the Houyhnhnms, on his knees in anguish surrounded by horse headed actors wearing long draperies

With the Houyhnhnms: 'Gulliver', Andrew McFarlane & Ghost Horses, Andrew Hansen, Avril McQueen & Annie Wylie
Photographs © Jeff Busby, 1992

Whatever the case, GULLIVER'S TRAVELS could not have been an easy play to stage. Handspan had rarely used their theatre of imagery as an illustrative component of a narrative drama. David Baird was ambitious for the medium but apparently fairly ignorant of its practice. Most company artists were tiptoeing in an unfamiliar milieu in the well-resourced and regulated environment of the State Theatre company. And, there were so many puppets and objects to operate!

Terry O’Connell, directed the production and although he was experienced across many performances genres, that didn’t include puppetry. The interweaving of design elements and transitions of character across form and scale, made directorial focus crucial, but complex and technically time-consuming to achieve. While the design was beautiful and effective, they were realised by, rather than evolved from the Handspan production ensemble. Their possibilities and limitations were revealed in rehearsal rather than in creative development.

Seven actors and six puppeteers, in unfamiliar territory, no doubt struggled to find common ground within the process and build a cohesive performance ensemble.

Expectations were high, but the collaboration was not a success. By production week, the play was foundering. David Baird, out of his depth as Puppetry Director, resigned from the project. Long term Handspan members continued in the play and it went on to play its advertised Melbourne and Geelong seasons.

The show's complexity and the difficulty of its process was apparent to critic, Fiona Scott-Norman in The Bulletin:

If theatrical productions were rated with degrees of difficulty, as are Olympic dives, the production of 'Gulliver's Travels' ...would rate at least as nine. A hybrid between the Melbourne Theatre Company and Handspan, 'Gulliver's Travels' has to be one of the most ambitious projects attempted by either...the success and failure of this play may be attributed almost entirely to a single source; the production is so bursting with competing creative inputs that it is ultimately unmanageable ...such an extraordinary piece of genetic engineering that it cannot be boring, but cannot function properly either.

Review: Awesome moments - traveling with Gulliver is a gargantuan experience, 7 July, 1992

1 Mike Daly: 'Gulliver' adaptation on a grand scale Interview with Andrew Bovell, The Age, Melbourne, 24 June, 1992
2 Gulliver at Kealba Handmade
3 Merilyn Mason Minell: My Hand Is Full of Voices: An Examination of the Adult Puppetry of Handspan Theatre in the Light of Current Puppet Theory, Thesis BA Hons Department of Theatre and Film Studies, University of NSW, November 1992

Scroll back to Click Tab: The People & The Performances

Creative team
Adapted by Andrew Bovell
Director Terry O’Connell
Designer Angus Strathie
Puppetry director David Baird
Puppetry designer Philip Millar
Lighting designer Jamieson Lewis
Composer Tassos Ioannides
Movement Andrea Furness
Assistant to the director Yaron Lifschitz
Puppet Makers Richard Mueck, Cliff Dolliver, Mary Sutherland, Rod Primrose, Ingrid Maganov, Rob Matson
Captain Lemuel Gulliver Andrew McFarlane
Musician Boris Conley
ACT 1 - Lilliput
Skyresh Jennifer Castles
Flimnap Nadia Coreno
The Empress/Treasurer’s Wife Merridy Eastman
The General Jacek Koman
Reldresal Mark Neil
The Emperor Hugh Wayland
Reldresal Andrew Hansen
The Empress Avril McQueen
Flimnap/Reldresal Heather Monk
Skyresh/Tailor Lizz Talbot
The Emperor Peter J.Wilson
The Empress/Tailor Annie Wylie
ACT 2 - Brobdingnag
Glumdalclitch Jennifer Castles
Farmer’s Wife/Queen Nadia Coreno
Slardral Merridy Eastman
Farmer/King Jacek Koman
Grultrud/Maid of Honour Mark Neil
Maid of Honour Hugh Wayland
Rat/Monkey FX/Eagle Andrew Hansen
Rat/Monkey FX/Eagle Avril McQueen
Grildig/Monkey/Eagle Heather Monk
Grildig/Monkey FX/Eagle Lizz Talbot
Grildig/Monkey/Eagle Peter J.Wilson
Rat/Monkey/Eagle Annie Wylie
ACT 3 - Laputa
The Queen/Projector Jennifer Castles
Flapper/Projector Nadia Coreno
Flapper/Projector/Mad Woman Merridy Eastman
Pirate/Projector/Struldbrug Jacek Koman
The King/Pirate/Ghostly waiter Mark Neil
Japanese Pirate/Munodi Hugh Wayland
Projectors’ Experiments Andrew Hansen, Avril McQueen, Heather Monk, Lizz Talbot, Peter J.Wilson, Annie Wylie
ACT 4 - Houyhnhnms
Foal Jennifer Castles
Sorrel Nag Nadia Coreno
Mistress Merridy Eastman
Master Jacek Koman
Colt Mark Neil
Old Houyhnhnm Hugh Wayland
Ghost Horses Andrew Hansen, Avril McQueen, Annie Wylie
Production team
Production co-ordinator Peter Roehlen
Puppetry production manager Paul Judd
Stage manager Greg Diamantis
Assistant stage managers Maria Roberts & Mary Benn
Sound recording Kerry Saxby
Photographer Jeff Busby
19 June – 18 July The Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre
23 – 25 July Ford Theatre, Geelong Performing Arts Centre, Victoria
Total performances 36
Total audience 19,121

Scroll back to Click Tab: The Production