Review: Pinocchio at Exeter Northcott

On the 19th October I went to see the classic tale of Pinocchio adapted for the stage by the Jasmin Vardimon Company. Their performance at Exeter Northcott was the sixth stop on their tour of the country, finishing in Ipswich on 18 December. See http://www.jasminvardimon.com for tour dates and to access photos of the performance.

The performance defied all of my expectations about the children’s tale, written by Italian author Carlo Collodi in the 19th century and later made very well known by Disney’s animation in 1940. Vardimon’s show is a combination of physical theatre and dance; there is very little in the way of dialogue except for a narrator figure. This narrator is created though the movement of white-gloved hands to form a face which moves in synchronisation with a voice over. These narrative moments were necessary as it was easy to get lost in the fantastical set and captivating dance sequences. It also signaled a return to the original audience for the story. The narrator, described as Pinocchio’s “consciousness” is similar to the novel of Pinocchio; as a sort of moral story about how to resist peer pressure and avoid telling lies, for younger readers. Vardimon’s production was indeed described as “family-friendly”, yet at times this was strained by sudden moments of shouting, momentary darkness, and the darker themes being represented on stage.

The performance began with a teepee lit from internally, in the centre of the stage. This set highlighed the carpentry work of Pinocchio’s creator through their silhouettes as Pinocchio is brought into the world. Through this process of craftsmanship, it evoked other instances of the creator and his creation such as the Biblical Creation story and Frankenstein and his monster- making us wonder if this relationship will go disastrously wrong. The use of silhouettes was particularly effective and worked well on stage. The teepee is opened and Pinocchio unveiled, to see the outside world for the first time. Pinocchio, played by a female, responds with awe, paralleling the delighted response of audience, when they discover that Pinocchio is a human being, rather than a marionette. This boundary between the human and puppet is explored throughout the performance. Towards the beginning and ending, Vardimon’s Company showcases their excellence in dance though their clockwork-like movement, as each of their bodies supports each other and then rolls across the floor to be replaced by another in slow motion, just like a cog. If Pinocchio is awakened from his wooden limbs by this winding mechanism, it is also what puts him to sleep by the end of the performance, as we hear the mechanical sound of winding yet again.

cog like formation.jpg

Again, using the physical body, rather than excessive costume, make-up and props, Pinocchio’s iconic nose was created by many hands slotting together in a row; a very clever use of the human body seeing that agile hands are often seen as one of the primary markers of humanity. Rather than dwelling on the nose growing idea, the cast only formed this position once, distancing the show from the amusing representations of his nose in popular culture.

The set itself was understated but very innovative, and was used tactically to progress through scenes without fragmentation. Yellow wooden furniture hung suspended from the ceiling, secured by ropes and provided a constant reminder of Pinocchio’s wooden construction as a marionette.It also established a key idea of the performance- that of being familiar and yet unfamiliar and strange simultaneously, that of psychologist Sigmund Freud’s Uncanny. This sense of disorientation continued throughout the performance as we are taken from school playground, to deep at sea and then back to a Lady and the Tramp style moment in a restaurant. Vardimon subverts what we think we are seeing; as the diners are formed from people’s feet with faces drawn on, thus forming a parody of clichéd romantic moments, or the ‘disneyfication’ of classic tales.

The performance follows Pinocchio who has run away from home, as he experiences various human emotions such as fear, sadness and curiosity. The show transitions between these emotions rapidly; one moment there are assassins jumping and crashing across the stage to warn Pinocchio of the dangers of being alone, and the next he is at school with his face in a pile of dirt as his bullies exclude him and his money has been hidden among the soil.Pinocchio also finds himself involved in a circus performance, where cast members use their physical strength to hoist other cast into the air by pulleys and ropes; reminiscent of the traditional Pinocchio’s very nature. In this journey where Pinocchio experiences humanity, the didactic message returns: if you don’t behave and return home, you will turn into a donkey. This threat materialises in a surreal dance where the cast wear creepy donkey masks and move around the stage unaffected by the huge, grotesque masks. Finally, we are transported out to sea by wave-like plastic sheeting, strong wind sounds and a small boat suspended in the air, that Pinocchio’s father is sailing on. The scene is left in darkness as Pinocchio and Gepetto escape what is often described as the whale’s stomach, or a hell, and the audience is left wondering exactly what has just happened.

I emerged from the theatre with the sense of having participated in a surreal and uncanny dream. Vardimon’s Company evoked the quintessential Pinocchio tale that we’re all familiar with, yet simultaneously disturbed this through an impressive display of light, movement and control. The imaginative and impressive performance is perhaps best described by a quotation from Alice in Wonderland: “we’re all mad here” (Lewis Carroll) and this madness is necessary, in a tale where a marionette comes to life and explores the dos and don’ts of a complicated and arbitrary human world.

pinocchio madness.jpg

All photos of the performance are the property of the Jasmin Vardimon Company, Disney’s screen grab was found at http://www.cornel1801.com/disney/Pinocchio-1940/movie-film.html

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