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Dan Coleman: Gulliver Returns

By | Published on Monday 25 June 2018

If you’re a fan of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, you might be intrigued by the sound of the latest show from Festival regulars Dawn State, as although it’s not strictly based on the Swift classic, it incorporates some of its themes and ideas.

That said, I don’t think you need to like or even have read the novel to appreciate this great sounding play. I certainly wanted to know more about the show as soon as I heard about it and so arranged a chat with Dan Coleman, director of the piece and AD of the company.

CM: Right, let’s start at the beginning and talk about the plot of the play. What happens in it?
DC: ‘Gulliver Returns’ is about a contemporary couple called Lil and Lem. For reasons I won’t give away Lem has essentially untethered himself from reality and escaped into the fantasy world of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’.

Just like the character in the book he now thinks he’s a man on a mission to save humanity from itself; which he intends to do by telling us the story of his amazing adventures. Lil has promised to help him tell this story, but what she’s really trying to do is find a way to drag him out of his fantasy and bring him back home.

CM: What themes does the play focus on?
DC: It’s a play about the strange places we go to when our world is torn apart by grief; and what it might take to get us back from those places.

CM: Are you a fan of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’? What made you decide to write a piece incorporating elements of it? What was the inspiration for the play?
DC: I’m a fan of some of it. It’s a sprawling – and sometimes quite infuriating – book, but it’s filled with these incredible moments of rage, and wonder, and insight that I really wanted to try and capture in a play.

For me it’s about a lost soul trying to find some kind of order in a scary and chaotic world; and that felt like a really interesting jumping off point for a play about a contemporary couple whose world has been torn apart. The hope is that by laying those two stories on top of each other you get to look at both of them in a new way.

CM: Many people will be aware of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, but possibly only as a story of a man washed ashore in a country where the people are all tiny. There’s much more to the story than that, of course. Can you tell us a bit more about the book?
DC: Yeah; so one of the most incredible things about Gulliver’s Travels is that the whole thing is basically a biting satire. It’s filled with an absolute fury at the savage world we’ve created for ourselves, and you can feel its influence on a lot of the work that comes after it – George Orwell spoke about it being a major influence on 1984, for example.

The section with the little Lilliputians is only the first part of Gulliver’s adventures. He visits several other (equally fantastical) countries after Lilliput and with each one he grows more and more disillusioned by English society. By the end of the book he’s denounced us all as savages and is basically on a one-man mission to save humanity from its depraved nature. Which is a really meaty objective for a character to start a play with.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about those behind the production..? Who else is involved in bringing it together?
DC: The chief conspirators have been our amazing actors Cathy Conneff and Jack Bence, who have brought so much to the characters and the story. Dawn State stalwart Christopher Birks has assistant produced, the wizard Ben Hughes has production managed, and Julian Starr created the fantastic sound design.

CM: Tell us about said company behind this, Dawn State, which you’re the AD of. How did it come together, why did it come together and what ethos does it have?
DC: Dawn State started life about 4 years ago. It was partly born of my desire to get away from the director-for-hire rat-trap and develop my skills as a theatre-maker.

It was also a chance to work with some amazing people like Chris Birks, Dan Nicholson, Amy Blair, Naomi Said, Phil Desmueles and Claire Turner; all of whom have played a big part in developing the company over that period.

Dawn State makes dynamic new work inspired by classic text and forgotten stories. The intention is to connect the past and the present to try and create theatre that’s urgent, passionate and timeless.

CM: How did you end up doing this job? Did you always want to work in the theatre? What steps did you take to get to this point in your career?
DC: I always knew I wanted to do something creative. I was performing semi-professionally from quite a young age so I guess it kind of got into the blood, and then at university I got really interested in directing and working with new writing.

I was a jobbing director for the first few years of my career and then I made a choice to become a bit more self-sufficient and start a company. It’s hard going but it’s given me the chance to focus on making the stuff that gets me fired up, and ultimately that’s a really lucky position to be in.

CM: What dreams or ambitions do you have for the future?
DC: Ha! Literally my only ambition at the moment is to get to the end of August alive.

CM:This isn’t your first show at the festival, is it? What previous productions did you bring to the Fringe, and how did you get on with those?
DC: No this will be Dawn State’s third show at the Fringe. Our first was ‘The Man Who Would be King’ in 2014, which was a contemporary take on Kipling’s caustic debut novella.

Then we were back in 2015 with ‘The Wonderful Discovery of Witches’, a new play based on the true story of the Pendle Witches. We’ve been really lucky because reaction has been great both times.

‘Witches’ transferred down to London for a few shows in 2015 and ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ toured the UK in autumn 2016.

CM: What makes you keep bringing productions back to the Fringe? What do you like about it?
DC: People talk a lot about how hard the Fringe is, and that’s absolutely true, but it’s also an amazing opportunity. Bringing stuff to the festival has helped us define the kind of work we want to make; it’s helped us develop our audience; it’s helped us build connections that have turned into tours and transfers. It’s still the best launch pad for theatre in the country and for a small company like ours it’s basically an essential part of what we do.

CM: Is there anything you don’t like about it? What would you warn Fringe first timers about?
DC: I think the more realistic you can be about your expectations the better your chances of making a success of it. You can’t legislate for whether you’ve got a mega-hit or a car-crash on your hands; but you can make sure you do the simple things right: rehearse the thing till you can say it in your sleep; get some rest; and speak to people rather than throwing flyers at them. The rest of it is in the lap of the gods.

CM: What kind of shows do you see when you are at the festival? What do you have earmarked in your brochure for this year?
DC: I’ve got quite a few mates to check in on. ‘Thor and Loki’ by House of Blackwell will be a must; ‘Mistero Buffo’ by Rhum and Clay looks great; and I saw a bit of ‘Electrolyte’ earlier in the year by a young company called Wildcard, which looked really interesting. And a sneaky bit of Peter Brook obvs.

CM: What’s coming up next for you, after the Festival?
DC: The Gulliver team gets a couple of weeks off then we’re heading straight out on a 4-week tour to places like Farnham Maltings, Northern Stage, Cast in Doncaster and Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury. No rest etc etc.

‘Gulliver Returns’ was performed at Underbelly at Edinburgh Festival 2018.

LINKS: dawnstate.co.uk