BBC Radio 4, 5-19 February 2012
Matthew Broughton's version of Swift's classic opened with an interesting contemporary spin, as the publisher Richard Simpson (Matthew Gravelle) entered Gulliver's (Arthur Darvill's) residence and listened to an account of the travels on a machine. Like Simpson, we did not know how to describe the machine, but could reasonably assume that it was a primitive form of recording device. This rewritten prelude drew attention to the enduring significance of Swift's work; his political and social is as significant today as when it was first published in the mid-eighteenth century.
Sam Hoyle's production continually drew attention to the story's enduring relevance. The musical accompaniment contained a variety of extracts from differing historical periods, including work by Mozart and Rimsky-Korsakov. Broughton's script included several contemporary idioms, includng different words for the act of passing water ("peeing," and "tinkling"), while one character was described as "a son of a bitch." For regular listeners to Radio 4's Classic Serial, there were moments strongly reminiscent of the recent adaptation of Rabelais' Gargantua - especially when Gulliver extinguished a fire in Lilliput by passing water.
In thematic terms, the production focused on the futilities of inter- and cross-cultural exchange. Darvill's Gulliver imagined himself as the colonizer of Lilliput, as he looked across the island at the buildings and its people, all so tiny that he could have crushed them at one blow, if he had so desired. Gulliver was a fair-minded person, and made the effort to integrate himself into their community by learning the local language and undertaking various duties on their behalf, such as defeating their deadliest rivals in battle. Unfortunately the most altruistic deeds can be wilfully misunderstood: Gulliver discovered this to his cost when the King of Lilliput (Chris Pavlo) had him impeached for passing water on their city. Despite his basic goodness, it seemed that no one trusted him: even his so-called best friend was described as "a politician." Gulliver responded quizzically: "I don't ... understand," taking a long pause between the last two words in the phrase. The answer was self-evident; he was treated as 'the other,' despite his attempts to integrate.
But perhaps Gulliver was lucky to be treated in this way; if he had integrated, he might have become enbroiled in a world where wars were waged over insignificant matters - in this case eggs. As Gulliver himself observed in an aside, Lilliput's "politics were of small matters ... but the effects devastasting."
Other versions of Gulliver's Travels - notably 2010 film starring Rob Letterman - have treated the novel as a fantasy, suitable for family audiences. Hoyle and Letterman's adaptation reminded us of Swift's desire to satirize corrupt politicians ruling xenophobic societies. I look forward eagerly to the second episode, where we will be exposed to even more "monstrous horrors."