Posted on December 15, 2007
Artists often seem to get away with murder, but just occasionally they are prevented. Notably, a couple of authors who hoped to kill off their protagonists have been stopped by an outraged public. Sherlock Holmes is the most notorious example, brought back from the Reichenbach Falls by a reluctant Conan Doyle. And Pinocchio, the puppet who tries to make it into boyhood, is another. The creation of Florentine journalist Carlo Collodi, his adventures unfolded in serial form (1881-83) – adventures which were more like moral hurdles at which he could fall. One episode, intended to be the last, was the ultimate reproach to naughty boys – Pinocchio, pursued by thieves, is gruesomely hung from a tree, kicking in his death throes for over three hours. Eventually, his public’s protests forced Collodi to revive the little wooden corpse and let him continue on the road to flesh.
The original’s dark intent survives in surprising measure in Will Tuckett’s dance-theatre version, first seen at the ROH’s Linbury Studio in 2006. The small kids present seemed to watch with equanimity, but it scared the bejesus out of me. Several episodes will be familiar from the Disney movie: Pinocchio gets tangled up in a puppet show, beguiled by a cat and fox, turned into a donkey and swallowed by a shark. Collodi’s framing is didactic, the punishment for failure extreme, and Tuckett doesn’t soften the story a great deal. The humanity that Pinocchio is encouraged to adopt is pretty grim (no fun, a life of drudge and duty, spark firmly quashed). Christopher Akrill’s tottering hero nimbly conveys the sense that, long before he achieves blood in his veins, Pinocchio already has a heart, susceptible to hurt and harm.
The design by the Quay Brothers (sets) and Nicky Gillibrand (costumes) is extraordinary (accentuated by Paule Constable’s towering-shadow lighting). There’s no cute here – instead, it’s charcoal shades, a mittel-European gravity and sense of the grotesque. A knotty wooden table has such muscular legs it looks as if it is struggling into life. Trees are not so much branched as clawed. Gillibrand’s kids wear smutched print frocks and jumpers, and her hats are uncanny – each just slightly too big or too small, nothing quite comfy.
Beneath a saffron shock of hair, Akrill’s puppet hero struggles to make himself work, always on the verge of a tumble. His stiff joints are not unlike old Geppetto’s geriatric stagger – the pair seem destined to be family (Collodi’s toymaker actually hopes to fashion not a son but a puppet to exhibit for cash, but there’s a limit to how unsentimental a festive show should be). The lad’s long nose doesn’t just indicate fibbing – it’s a sign of disobedient, lusty wilfulness, and is here such a livid red peg that Dr Freud could only raise an eyebrow and scribble knowingly in his notebook.
Martin Ward’s music has a romany fervour – sinister strings and klezmatic wind. It cranks up a mechanical percussion when Pinocchio has no sooner been carved than he’s packed off to school, lumbered with slate and earmuffs. School itself is full of bobble-hatted bullies and a fatuous teacher (“Paris is the capital of Papua New Guineapig”). What kind of grim existence is this? A sense of play survives in Phil Porter’s shamelessly inventive text – a giddy, word-spinning, demi-punning lexicon that defies sense and audibility and has the time of its life. Even so, a uniquely desolate image closes the first act: Pinocchio convinced that Geppetto has drowned, inconsolable and alone.
Fun in this story is usually delusory. The showman Stromboli (Ewan Wardrop, all belly and curled mustachios) enlists his slinky sidekick the Fox (Charlotte Broom, paws ingratiatingly cocked) to beguile the woodentop of his cash. The Fox, wearing plaid shorts and fur collar, even throws in a striptease – not surprising, given that she’s equipped with her own, fearsomely pneumatic boa in the shape of her russet tail. Like the rest of the cast, she’s vivid and energetic (as Stromboli says of his marionettes, they “never tire/ We work them till their feet on fire”).
The story almost ends prematurely as truants flit to Stromboli’s circus. This is the Quay’s graphic masterpiece, a curtain displaying a leering washed-out clown, head askew, its 3D tubular arms beckoning to wayward boys. When the kids are turned into donkeys (clopping unsteadily on wooden crutches), the curtain pulls back to reveal a glue factory, and anyone in the audience who has hitherto escaped trauma will be guaranteed nightmares for a month. Unlike his pals, Pinocchio escapes, only to be tossed into the shark’s jaws (it’s as if Collodi reproached the audience who clamoured for Pinocchio’s survival, torturing them with ever grimmer fates). The shark is of a subterranean no-colour, its mesh maw immensely extendable, its eyes red as a snarl. After this, the conclusion (promising a life of polite domestic duty) is a relief, but not exactly happy-ever-after – Tuckett’s richly imaginative production is too smart for that.
Pinocchio runs at the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House until January 5, 2008. Telephone the Box Office on 020 7304 4000 to check for ticket availability.