A Feast for the Senses
As the acclaimed Manipulate Festival of visual theatre and puppetry prepares for its ninth edition, Mark Brown spoke to its director Simon Hart
For a nation of just five million people Scotland punches well above its weight when it comes to the international theatre and performance scene. Of course, we boast the biggest arts festival on the planet, in the shape of the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe, but there’s plenty going on beyond the great jamboree in August.
The perennial first footer of the Scottish festival year is Manipulate, the impressive programme of visual theatre and puppetry which is held annually in Edinburgh and Aberdeen, before wending its way to venues in Norwich and London. Now moving into its ninth year, the festival, which is presented by Puppet Animation Scotland, showcases the kind of imaginative and metaphorical performance that is part of the theatrical mainstream on continental Europe, but is still considered somewhat leftfield here in the UK.
“It’s partly to do with the heritage of British theatre”, says Manipulate director Simon Hart. “We’re very focused around the text.
“Britain has the heritage of world class playwrights, from Shakespeare right up to David Greig. British actors and directors, even as they’re going through drama school, encounter a certain way of approaching theatre.
“On the continent they bring different art forms together much more in their theatre making.”
The consequence of this cross-disciplinary approach to performance in Europe is the kind of beautiful, humorous, often perplexing work staged by the likes of Russian company Akhe, who have been regular visitors to the Edinburgh Fringe and Glasgow’s recently closed arts venue The Arches. Indeed, the controversial demise of the Glasgow venue (which, alongside Summerhall in Edinburgh, was Scotland’s premier centre for this sort of work) puts an even greater onus on Manipulate.
“That’s where our role as Puppet Animation Scotland really kicks in”, Hart suggests. “The festival is about bringing the best international work we can find, but equally important is providing a platform for Scottish artists and their work.”
This year that platform includes a series of performances that go under the heading of “snapshots”. Free, but ticketed, events, these 40-minute performances feature substantial excerpts from works-in-progress by Scotland-based artists such as Al Seed and Judith Milligan, Laura Cameron-Lewis and Shona Reppe, and Royal Conservatoire of Scotland graduate Laura Wooff.
Hart shares the general dismay about the fate of The Arches, but is hugely encouraged by the continued flourishing of visual theatre in Scotland. “I think the strength is there. The most encouraging thing is that, despite the closure of The Arches, artists are desperate to present their work and they are finding other ways to do it.”
In addition to the artists performing at this year’s Manipulate, the director mentions the likes of Vox Motus theatre company and Glasgow-based Singaporean artist Ramesh Meyyappan as theatre makers who are taking visual theatre forward in Scotland. He might have added to that list Company of Wolves, which models itself on the philosophy and techniques of the Polish theatre master Jerzy Grotowski.
Hart also sees the techniques of visual theatre finding their way into the work of Scotland’s mainstream theatres: “If you take someone like Dominic Hill [artistic director of the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow], he’s always looking for ways to bring in these art forms.”
All of which points to a thriving of the visual imagination in Scottish theatre and performance, with the Manipulate Festival at the very heart of things.
The Manipulate Festival is at the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, January 29-31 and the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, January 31 to February 6. For further information, visit: manipulatefestival.org
Gobo. Digital Glossary
Saturday February 6, 7.30pm, Traverse Theatre
Akhe, the “Russian engineering theatre” company from St Petersburg, led by the extraordinary duo of Maksim Isaev and Pavel Semchenko, create charming, hilarious, intricate, occasionally sinister and always gorgeously stylised alternative worlds. Mr Carmen, which they brought to Manipulate last year, is a glorious carnival of cultural allusion, visual imagination and mechanical mayhem. This year’s offering, Gobo, 17 sketches from the life of an anti-hero, promises to be every bit as captivating and surreal.
Friday February 5, 7.30pm, Traverse Theatre
Young, Scottish visual theatre company Faux Theatre combine physical performance, kinetic art and an original musical score to evoke one woman’s internal world. By turns humorous and soberingly poignant, it employs paper and household objects in a delicate, carefully considered visual aesthetic. Acclaimed performer Francisca Morton plays the woman, with Foley (artificial sound) artist and composer Barney Strachan evoking her aural world.
Macbeth: Without Words
Tuesday February 2, 9pm, Traverse Theatre
Otherworldly stage imagery and make up combine with advanced visual technologies (projected video-mappings and animations), a disconcerting and premonitory soundscape and a DJ set in this wordless evocation of Shakespeare’s Scottish play. Created by Edinburgh-based company Ludens Ensemble and its director Phillipos Phillipou, the piece is supported by Pafos 2017: European Capital of Culture in Cyprus, where it will be played next year.
Tuesday February 2, 7.30pm, Traverse Theatre
UK-based American aerial artists Paper Doll Militia attempt to bring the visual imagination of Tim Burton into the theatre. Paradoxically ethereal-yet-robust, LoopsEnd is a work of visual metaphor that evokes the psychological and material realities of human relations. At times beautiful and intimate, at others disquieting, bordering on violent, it is the kind of highly original work Manipulate exists to present.
This preview was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 24, 2016
© Mark Brown