From the cabinet to the nursery | Paul Stebbings

We speak to British theatre director Paul Stebbings, whose take on the enduringly popular 18th century satire – Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels – will be making a stopover to the Teatru Salesjan in Sliema next month, courtesy of TNT Britain.

Paul Stebbings: “Maltese theatregoers are a very discerning audience”.
Paul Stebbings: “Maltese theatregoers are a very discerning audience”.

How did you feel about this project when you first approached it? Were you ever intimidated by the  prospect of adapting one of the classics of English literature? 

I don't feel intimidated by great challenges - it's why I (try to) make theatre. Indeed, I felt angry about the way that Gulliver's Travels, one of the most profound and topical books in any language, has been turned into a children's story, almost as if it's too dangerous to be 'allowed out'.

I feel that Swift is on my side and I am working with his ghost to place this wonderful satire on the stage. I also wanted to update the satire - to be inspired by the original, not just to ploddingly reproduce it. Being faithful to a book involves more than just being faithful to the story line. What was Swift on about? And what does that mean to us now? Those are the key questions.

What do you think remains enduring about the text?

Firstly it is a fabulously entertaining book, a keystone of in the great tradition of dark and meaningful British humour (or should I say Anglo Irish?).

Secondly, the book is truly profound - it shifts from satire to an examination of the value and meaning of human life - Gulliver himself shifts from being our hero to someone we have to disagree with as he exalts animals over humans and starts to despise mankind. Plus, it happens to be the first novel that happens to feature a flying saucer too! The central images touch us all - its not about a jolly giant, it's about being small minded or wide eyed, petty or great hearted, big headed or bird brained; for everything is a matter of perspective.

TNT Theatre Gulliver's Travels

Dan Gingell as Gulliver in TNT Theatre's touring production.

In your  opinion, what are some of the key differences  between performing a 'static' repertoire at a theatre and touring with a play?  

Well, we a have always been a touring company. And now, we perform more productions in more countries than any other touring theatre company - so we had better enjoy it! I think touring keeps a long-running production alive- I have known two actors who worked on the Mousetrap in London with one-year contracts. I couldn't imagine anything more theatrically tedious. Whereas we have a new challenge everyday - we have just performed Gulliver in Malaysia and Hong Kong - we had a very serious audience of local dignitaries one night who were challenged by the satire and had to be drawn slowly in - next morning we played hundred of school children who laughed and shouted and kept throwing new ideas at the actors in the participation sequences.

We really enjoy and appreciate coming to Malta - it is always a challenge because it is (frankly) a discerning audience who will not simply accept us on the basis of the title or what we have done before.

We have to be on top form and that is a good thing. Plus we just like Malta (and not only for the weather). I hope the Maltese audience knows that while only they can judge if we succeeded or fail, we will always do our best to present popular and challenging theatre.

The book is also known as a children's staple. Will you be doing away with this approach completely?

Dare I say it? Anyone can enjoy this production - we have had every age group in - why should something that appeals to children not also stimulate adults? Isn't that the reason why the book has survived? I leave the last word to 18th century  playwright John Gay, who was a friend of Swift's. He wrote to his friend: 'Your book is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery.'


Gulliver's Travels will be staged at the Teatru Salesjan in Sliema on November 8, 9 and 10 at 20:00. To book tickets call 21 342516. For more information log on to the venue's website or email [email protected]