Like Blue Peter presenters, Rosana Cade and Ivor MacAskill show us around their set, leading us backstage into the props area. How are we going to make the whale? It’ll have be realistic, they ask. Cade makes a knowing in-joke for those in the audience familiar with the part of making a show where you’ve really just run out of good ideas: It might be a budget question. We could project a big picture of a whale on the back wall? Or maybe we could create a whale… with our WORDS.
But this self-deprecating jab is misleading, because The Making of Pinocchio overruns with DIY ingenuity. Every other minute, a visual gag or theatrical sleight of hand works in service of the piece’s (high-) concept: that the 1940 Disney classic can be read as an allegory for gender transition. The story of a wooden puppet who knows in his heart that he is a real boy is mischievously exploded as a vehicle for autobiography — this is actually the story of MacAskill’s own transition, and of his and Cade’s real-life relationship.
It’s a meeting point for the real and the fantastical, and the two are rarely clearly demarcated. In this digital livestream version for Take Me Somewhere, Cade and MacAskill exploit the camera’s mediating power, using visual trickery to turn the fleshy fact of their bodies into fantastical images which are granted a deal of plasticity and reflect the mutability of bodies undergoing medical transition. A camera mounted at the lip of the stage allow them to play with scale and depth of field: Cade takes the foreground as a life-size puppet-maker, while Macaskill is set further back to appear puppet-sized. They interact in an elaborate mime that only translates faithfully at the precisely correct angle. Later, a mention of Pinocchio’s painted-on hairs is followed up with an extreme close-up of MacAskill’s facial hair, wiry noodles protruding from skin like tree trunks — the newly familiar made strange.
The presence of the camera lens is just one element of the piece’s preoccupation with artifice, theatre and performance. Often, the two hosts deliver plainly stated autobiographical exposition with the inflection of children’s storytellers, making sincerity and sarcasm indistinguishable from each other. Reality and fantasy rub up against each other as Cade and MacAskill wonder whether they have a responsibility in this show to confront the political reality of being trans in the UK today, or whether this can a space instead to realise, however liminally, a new utopian fantasy-realness.
That’s a difficult task, and throughout, theatre’s unstable relationship with truth seems to offer up a version of freedom, whilst at the same time concealing the same lines of power that they are trying to disrupt. A comparison is subtly drawn, for instance, between the requirement to ‘prove’ gender dysphoria to two medical experts in order to change one’s legal gender, and the theatrical imperative towards truth-telling. This finds its Pinocchio-parallel in the segment in which Pinocchio is forced to perform by the exploitative showman Stromboli; MacAskill deploys his vulnerability to theatrical effect, performing naked as he sings a baritone/alto duet with a video of himself pre-transition. The point here is that while, yes, MacAskill has agency in the telling and showing of his ‘truth’, this also necessarily plays into a cultural economy which dubiously rewards self-exposure.
Despite its rigorous density, the show is moreishly pleasurable to watch. The duo hold the audience with a brand of mischievous humour that’s provocative and reassuring in equal measure. In their previous show, MOOT MOOT, there was a memorable section of grinding and thrusting against a pair of swivel chairs, and delightfully, the furniture-fucking motif makes a welcome return here: Tim Spooner’s ingenious design sees the performers’ costumes performatively activated, with wooden dowel appendages inserted into sewn-on sockets (knees, elbows, nipples, crotch), to be gleefully stroked and tickled and fed into each other’s sockets and through holes in tables and chairs.
The over-the-top bawdiness of this section is balanced by the sweet domesticity that runs like a seam throughout the piece — there’s a lovely comic bathos to Cade and MacAskill calling each other ‘dear’ and ‘darling’ moments before merging via their wooden erogenous zones into a strange donkey-creature, lolloping round the stage whilst repeatedly baying ‘WWWEEEIRD, NOORRRRMAL, WWWEEEIRD, NOORRRMAL.’ A relationship in which you find yourselves navigating gender transition together is not a ‘normal’ one by most people’s standards. But Cade and MacAskill’s suggestion is that, alongside the transformative, fantastical joy that accompanies living beyond the gender binary, it’s also not not normal. Like MOOT MOOT before it, The Making of Pinocchio is about love and companionship, and as they lie together in the belly of the whale (in the end, an atmospheric cocoon created by Jo Palmer’s marine blue light, a cloth floor which peacefully undulates, a suspended cloud of wooden rods and Kirstin McMahon’s roving handheld camera), what I feel invited to see beneath these complex layers of performative irony, allegory and reverie, is the beautifully commonplace reality of a relationship: turning the bedside light off; brushing your teeth together; giving up half your sandwich; two people who love each other dearly.
The Making of Pinocchio ran at Take Me Somewhere festival. More info here.