PINOCCHIO playing as part of the Sydney Fringe is the most marvellous worldbuilding. The production is artistically and intellectually rigorous, expressively expansive and technically perfect. It is having well deserved sold out houses, but get your hands on a ticket any way you can. Because this is a production so specifically created around its surroundings that one fears it will struggle to find a re-mount venue.
It begins as Geppetto is come home to his grey, brutalist, Bauhaus inspired, utilitarian, dirty-windowed workshop. Taking the photo of El Duce from the wall, Geppetto’s imagination fires and to the squeaks of his two clarinet-playing creations, the other three puppets will also come to life. For the next 40 minutes he will interact with love and with sadness and with surprise and with fear. Oh! the games they will play.
This is a wordless production, directed by Julia Robertson and composed and designed by the company. The plaintive pitch of the two instruments will sometimes blend and other times jar in a contrapuntal, atonal squeal. They are played to perfection with exceptional tonguing and soft fingering. The live, and some recorded, music is ably enriched by group percussion and individual and choral vocalisations. The a Capella is delicious and there is a soprano raised to chilling effect and a tenor which soothes but does not guarantee safety for the wielder of imagination.
Each new incarnation of the narrative is emotionally redolent in its visual impact. Bodies are detailed with needle sharp expressions of intent and response. Whether with arms in fourth or arabesque, or prone after an orchestrated collapse in perfect time, the count is seamless and the deceptively intuitive group movement is smooth and luxuriously observed. Right from the audience entry, when every finger of each hand is held in evocative and highly skilled positions, the movement expresses fantasy and play. Yet, this production will slip into darker overtones quite often… a strangling will assault the audience in a look-away moment.
The characters have both clarity and blur, changeability and stability with Matthew Lee’s work as Geppetto grounded and detailed in its characterisation. His boo-boo elbow and man child reaction is just lovely and our empathy is engaged when, to a clarion call, his constructions make fun of him. It is his stewardship of the figments which fulfils the story elements as he interacts with the ensemble of Annie Stafford, Max Harris, Grace Stamnas, Oliver Shermacher and Laura Wilson.
Set in a confided bare space with only a large wooden cutting table, there is considerable scope for using levels and coming close to the audience seated on three sides. Above the scene, projected on the architrave, are epithets of a kind in Italian and in English. The performances are so mesmerizing that one hardly notices the chapters but words like ‘Vulpine’ and ‘the terrible dogfish’ leap out but are harsh in their lyricism. ‘land of the boobies’, that phrase looks better in Italian!
As the politics outside Geppetto’s enclave creeps into the world he has built, the world we have shared, the sensory and performance elements swell with totalitarian overtones and undercurrents. Forced callisthenics stream with the sweat of fascism and the audience understands that a Nuremburg ending is inevitable. We are caught in the excitement. Complicity in the awe and shock is horrible and telling!