Puppet and object theatre don’t command they place they deserve in our culture, but the Manipulate festival is trying to change that. By Mark Brown
Puppetry, historically speaking, has not enjoyed the highest status in the theatre cultures of the UK. From Punch and Judy (not a British innovation, but one borrowed from Italian commedia dell’arte) to Spitting Image, puppets have been considered either child’s play or the stuff of satirical comedy.
The idea that puppet theatre, or its cousin object theatre, could be seriously artistic has been largely foreign to us. This came home to me particularly strongly a little over four years ago, when I visited the prestigious new puppet theatre in the Russian city of Omsk in Siberia, a venue which towers over the extremely modest Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre in the west end of Glasgow.
It’s true that Scottish puppet and object theatre has come on leaps and bounds in recent times, with shows such as The Curious Scrapbook Of Josephine Bean by Shona Reppe, White by Andy Manley and Catherine Wheels, and A Christmas Carol by Graham McLaren (with puppets by Gavin Glover) for the National Theatre of Scotland. Nevertheless, we still have a long way to go before these fascinating genres enjoy the kind of esteem they command in many other countries around the world.
All of which makes the annual Manipulate festival of puppetry, object theatre, visual theatre and animation, which has just begun and at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, an important event in the Scottish theatrical calendar. Produced by Puppet Animation Scotland, the programme showcases the work of some of the most innovative theatre artists and animators working in Scotland and internationally.
Take, for example, the British premiere of And Then He Ate Me (Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, tonight; Traverse, Tuesday) by acclaimed Vélo Théatre of France. Combining text, movement and object theatre, it grows from the timeless narrative of humanity’s uneasy relationship with the wolf. The company’s poetic, witty and visually captivating form of storytelling has been compared with the works of the great French writer Charles Perrault (creator of Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella) and Tim Burton.
The work evokes the fragility of the human household in the face of the threats, real or imagined, actual or metaphorical, which lurk outside.
In Autumn Portraits (Traverse, Wednesday), puppet and mask artist Eric Bass, from the United States, offers a solo performance representing a series of characters who are in their “autumn years” and are casting their minds back over their lives. Drawing on the techniques of Japanese Bunraku puppetry, which date back to the 17th-century, the piece brings to the fore the deeply emotive possibilities of puppet and mask theatre.
The beauty of Scotland’s many international theatre and performance festivals is that they create opportunities for Scottish artists to collaborate with colleagues elsewhere in the world. Butterfly (Traverse, Thursday; Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, Saturday), a Scottish/Singaporean co-production between acclaimed artists Gavin Glover and Ramesh Meyyappan, is an exciting case in point.
Inspired by the story of Madam Butterfly (itself a meeting of East and West), its wordless combination of puppetry, visual theatre and dance has already led to critical acclaim in Singapore.
Enticing though the entire Manipulate programme is, many visual theatre fans will feel that the festival has left the best until last. Mr Carmen (Traverse, Saturday) is an extraordinary, moving, witty, dream-like work by Russian “engineering theatre” company Akhe.
The show, which travels beautifully through love, rivalry, jealousy and death, was, deservedly, showered with critical bouquets when it played at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012. For my money, Akhe are simply one of the greatest companies in world theatre today.
For full details of the Manipulate programme, visit: http://www.manipulatefestival.org
This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 1, 2015
© Mark Brown