PINOCCHIO EFFECT by Scapino Ballet, Rotterdam

What I miss most since leaving the UK for Holland seven years ago is the theatre – plays, both comedy and drama, and at this time of year I crave for the annual Christmas ritual of going to a pantomime. I have been involved in several in my time, not least being the back end of a pantomime horse in Humpty Dumpty – but I digress.

What I like about Scapino, and I have said this before, is that their productions are dramatic, dramatic in the sense that they are almost like danced plays, they have plots, linear story lines, and scenery rather than an empty vast black-box stage. So it is entirely fitting that their offering over this festive season is almost like a pantomime and as we all know, children’s stories must ultimately have a moral.

The moral to Pinocchio Effect is that lying is bad and that no good will come of it. The title comes from the story of Pinocchio, a wooden puppet who comes to life and whose nose grows every time he tells a fib. And in modern criminal profiling touching the nose is a certain sign that someone is lying – which seems a bit unfair on people who have a cold or a persistent itch.

Apart from lying being morally wrong it is also bloody complicated, trying to remember the details of events that have never happened. As Sir Walter Scott famously said in his 1808 novel Marmion, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave . . . when first we practice to deceive” and this is well demonstrated by the chaotic family life in the middle and main section of Pinocchio Effect.

But lies are all around us. Good theatre of any kind, dance or drama, is about truth. Like any great art it gives us an insight into the human condition. The irony is that theatre itself is a lie. It deals in illusion – the characters are not real people but actors pretending to be them. The room in which they speak is not a real room but flimsy scenery held together by nails and bits of rope. It’s not real sunshine but a strategically placed spotlight. Nothing we see on stage is real, it’s all deception. And don’t get me started on politics.

But back to Pinocchio Effect. What is perhaps surprising is the amount of spoken word and how much the production is dependent on it. The first scene sees the performers as men in suits addressing the audience from behind a table on the subject of rules. It is left to the audience to spot the real, the fake or the downright ridiculous. This pastiche is all spoken word, in Dutch, with only a limited amount of dance or movement.

The main body of the piece takes place in a rather dreary family home – a living room, a bedroom, a bathroom and an entrance hall. The rooms are lined up across the stage with a large projection screen above which occasionally rises to reveal another playing area. The dancers all live together as one family each with their own secret compartments. They try to manipulate each other or escape reality by lying to each other. Slowly their lies and truths come to light revealing their true nature, all the time observed by a mysterious caped figure, all in black, who hovers menacingly in the background.

This middle sequence had a very 1950s feel to it, especially the mother’s fantasy/dream sequence. This entailed five girl dancers with bouffant hair styles in high heels and tight skirts wearing dark-glasses and chiffon headscarves. They were like characters from an old American television advert for domestic cleaning products or a breakfast cereal. It was very much like a specialty act in a pantomime, as was the appearance of the Ugly Sisters, but without their costumes.  The two dancers wearing fat naked men suits, complete with generous soft dangly bits perhaps represented the most memorable moment of the show.

The final scene sees Scapino reverting to what they do best – dance. A long dining table is set for dinner which served as the setting for the final dénouement of this extraordinary piece of theatre.

With Pinocchio Effect, and their previous production which involved opera, Scapino seems to be venturing into new, collaborative territory. With their two long-terms principal dancers and artistic director gone – three personalities who virtually defined Scapino – it will be interesting to see what happens next. I just hope they don’t forget that they are first and foremost a dance company, and a world class one at that.

Pinocchio Effect is an ambitious piece of imaginative and original theatre directed by Cecilia Moisio co-produced with Maas theater en dans and professes to be “A family show for everyone between 10 and 110 years old, full of humour and seriousness”. Not so sure about that being true but it was all great boisterous fun in the lead up to Christmas and I hope that the numerous children in the audience on the night we were there were not disappointed that there was not an elongated wooden nose in sight – and that’s no lie.   Michael Hasted at Theater Rotterdam on 22nd December 2023

Photo by Bart Grietens

Scapino’s Pinocchio Effect is at Theater Rotterdam until 28th December and then tours until  2nd March, 2024.