PINOCCHIO IN VENICE
Cambridge Arts Theatre/touring
Opened 5 June, 1997

Silviu Purcarete's Titus Andronicus is accompanied on its British tour by a free adaptation of Robert Coover's "cult novel" (i.e., I had never heard of it) Pinocchio In Venice, performed in Romanian by the National Theatre of Craiova but directed by Briton Robert Delamere under the auspices of Neil Wallace's Offshore International Cultural Projects.

Delamere enjoys the opportunity to engage first-hand in (for want of a better term) an Eastern European theatrical aesthetic; his set design (in collaboration with adaptor Edward Carey) consists almost entirely of suitcases they form the very backdrop, doors included as characters wander in dim light across a stage strewn with pages of manuscript: the final novel of the former Pinocchio (Ilie Gheorghe), now a desiccated elderly scholar using the name Dr Pinenut, searching for the work of which he was robbed by his old adversaries the Fox and the Cat, and all the while slowly reverting to wood.

The symbols of woodenness and baggage are exhaustively explored in the course of almost three hours, with every imaginable change being rung on the metaphors. Pinenut's encroaching "lignosis" is the result of a lifetime in which, after his conversion into flesh and blood, he never truly engaged with the world around him, preferring to surround himself with scholarly papers; bereft of his cases of books, it becomes apparent how little his life has consisted of other than mere luggage.

Carey's adaptation is based on the assumption that we all now know the story of Pinocchio, or more precisely the Disney version thereof. Hence he has apparently reduced the novel to a clutch of once-familiar principal characters the Cat and the Fox, the Little Man who once turned the puppet into a donkey in addition to a bewildering bifurcation of the Blue-Haired Fairy into both a young student with whom the dying Pinenut becomes besotted and a cracked old bag-lady who spends her time searching Venice for the puppet Pinocchio; for in this version, the fleshly Pinocchio seems somehow to have emerged from the wooden one rather than having been metamorphosed from it... although the puppet itself, in its independent existence, also undergoes a process of ageing. Pinenut is further accompanied by a male tramp who is seemingly the personification of the Lion of Venice.

Confused? You are not alone. One useful test of how far any adaptation or "version" of an existing story succeeds as theatre is whether it needs footnotes. Pinocchio In Venice does. Without Carey's explanations, one is left with a series of fine visuals and performances, but to little intelligible end; even with them, this hybrid offspring of stories by Carlo Collodi and Thomas Mann, although well executed, fails to compel.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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