Ahead of the pack
Scottish theatre group Company of Wolves present their show The End Of Things at this year’s Manipulate festival. Mark Brown spoke with artistic director Ewan Downie
The Manipulate festival of visual theatre is currently celebrating its 10th birthday. Held annually at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, it has become an important part of the Scottish performing arts calendar.
A genuinely international event, it showcases physical theatre, and puppetry from Scotland and across the world.
Glasgow-based group Company of Wolves is typical of the festival’s internationalism. Established by Ewan Downie and his joint artistic director Anna Porubcansky in 2012, the Wolves are inspired by the “laboratory theatres” of the great Polish theatre maker Jerzy Grotowski and his successors.
Indeed, Downie was, for six years, a member of acclaimed Polish company Song of the Goat. That group is known to many Scottish theatre lovers on account of its numerous appearances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
I meet Downie at the Tramway arts venue in Glasgow to talk about his company’s latest show, The End Of Things (which goes on an extensive tour after it plays at Manipulate). The piece emerged, he tells me, from a niggling sense of something that needed to be done.
“For me the creative process always starts with an irritant”, he explains. “It’s what [English dramatist] Howard Barker calls ‘the sand in the oyster’s gut’. It always feels like an itch.
“In this case it was to do with endings. We knew we wanted to do something about that subject, but we didn’t know what it was exactly.
“As I started to think a bit more about the piece I realised that endings, for me, are a human concept. It’s something to do with our experience of change.
“We think things end, but they only end from our perspective. There are the same number of atoms in a dead body as in a live body.
“Then we started to think about the stories that we tell each other about endings and beginnings. You remember your first date, your wedding, the birth of your child.
“You remember these important stories. The starting point of the show was that.”
This sounds like the basis for a production that is more about generating profound personal emotions than articulating a thought. Which, if you’ve ever seen a performance by Song of the Goat, you will know is no bad thing.
In the Polish theatre of the body and the voice we are often offered a deeply affecting experience in which we feel more than we understand.
For Downie, this profundity comes from the methods of theatre making pioneered by Grotowski. “When we work with a group of performers, it changes with each show”, he says.
“I often feel that, through the training, we’re putting the performers in contact with a stream of their own imaginations… Then we introduce whatever is the material of the performance… So, the results are not that predictable.”
It is essential, says Downie, that work such as his, which has its roots in the European avant-garde, has the support of a festival like Manipulate. He is full of praise for the festival’s artistic director Simon Hart and its projects manager Jen White.
” Once they see your work and are interested in it, they’re just 100 percent behind you”, he comments. Indeed, Downie was particularly impressed to discover that Manipulate is bringing a group of high level producers from around the world to see this year’s programme.
All of which suggests that, after a decade of programming, Manipulate is having no little success in bringing international work to Scotland and Scottish work to the world.
The End of Things plays the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh as part of the Manipulate festival on January 31. It then tours until March 18. For tour details, visit: companyofwolves.org.uk
MANIPULATE FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS
January 28, Lemon Tree, Aberdeen
January 30, Traverse, Edinburgh
French puppet theatre masters Compagnie La Pendue offer us their distinct take on Pulcinella (better known as Punch to you and me), the international mischief maker of puppetry who began his life in 18th-century Naples. This show has played to acclaim in more than 30 countries. Join La Pendue as they revel in a character who “laughs at everything. Even death.”
January 28, Traverse, Edinburgh
February 3, Lemon Tree, Aberdeen
Scottish visual theatre company Tortoise in a Nutshell’s new show explores themes of “depression, dependence and desolation” in this poetic and metaphorical piece. The story of a man in desperate straits on the ocean, and his unlikely relationship with a fish, it is a co-production with Danish new writing centre Teater Katapult.
January 27, Lemon Tree, Aberdeen
February 1, Traverse, Edinburgh
One actor using only a table, a camera and some objects conjures up imaginary cities in this show by Theatre De La Pire Espece from Quebec. If you saw this company’s unhinged Ubu On The Table at Summerhall during last year’s Fringe you will know what to expect from this crazy and creative form of object theatre.
The Manipulate festival plays at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, January 27 to February 5. Some shows tour elsewhere in Scotland. For full details of the programme, visit: manipulatefestival.org
Compiled by Mark Brown
This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 15, 2017
© Mark Brown