From a 1.3 second movie inspired by Napalm Death, to a 70-minute show telling the entire history of the human race, the Manipulate festival is as experimental as ever
Buzzcut @ Manipulate
Star rating: * * * *
To The End Of Love
Star rating: * * *
A Wild Growling Happiness
Traverse Theatre, edinburgh
Star rating: * * * *
IT’S AROUND seven o’clock on a Sunday evening, and an audience of about 60 people are milling around in the main hall at Summerhall, Edinburgh’s magical new arts lab, waiting for something to happen. In a trice, the two presiding spirits of Glasgow’s Buzzcut performance art scene appear on the balcony, and offer instructions; red wristbands this way, blue wristbands that way, and we’re off to our first shows, somewhere deep in the Summerhall labyrinth.
It’s an unusual start to this year’s Manipulate Festival, founded and run by Puppet Animation Scotland, and based at the Traverse. Summerhall is a new venue for the festival, and this evening features a range of artists – fresh from Glasgow’s penniless but booming performance scene – whose work may or may not reflect Manipulate’s original interest in “object theatre”; the kind of post-human performance in which material objects, shadows or light carry the story, rather than human actors.
These days, though, Manipulate simply calls itself a festival of “visual theatre”, although that phrase, too, hardly does justice to its experimental quality; and it comfortably embraces events like my first Summerhall show, Sarah Hopfinger’s Age Old, a delicious 30-minute meditation exploring the differences of perspective between Hopfinger and her little friend and co-performer Chloe, who is seven; or, by contrast, the thunderously vivid 15-minute fragment of dance-turned-drama that finishes the evening. Titled Por Sal Y Samba, the show features Carles Casallachs of the Netherlands in a ferocious tango with a glamorous partner, that rapidly deteriorates into domestic violence, and terrible vengeance.
In between, there’s the joy of a performance cafe in the main hall, titled Five Minutes To Move You, in which we’re touched by a series of brief one-one-performances at tables around the room. My favourite is Xana Marwick’s You Suffer, But Why?, inspired by a 1.3 second track by Napalm Death, in which we are given a chance to direct a 1.3 second movie starring the remarkable Marwick, and expressing a strong emotion; it’s a laughably brief experience, but somehow unforgettable.
Then most excitingly, in an old lecture theatre round the back, there’s Murray Wason’s Automaton, a show already developed as a three-hour installation event, but now distilled into a one-hour performance that goes straight to the heart of the “object theatre” theme.
In nine chapters, Wason takes us on a tour of the idea of the automaton – offering us a brief chance to make our own robots out of a pile of rubbish – and a history of the idea of the robot, featuring ancient footage of Karel Capek’s RUR, and of Isaac Asimov outlining his Three Laws of Robotics. And towards the end, Wason as scientist – then as himself – invites us to meditate on whether our robots understand much about memory, significance, and the real texture of human experience; it’s a sequence of ever-increasing power and poetry, that ends with the image of a flickering fire of life, projected onto Wason’s heart, and onto the walls of the laboratory.
At midnight on Sunday, though, the Buzzcut invasion returned to Glasgow, and the Manipulate Festival retreated into the Traverse, where it began to seem much more like a high-powered international trade fair for those with an interest in cutting-edge puppetry, featuring work from Finland, Estonia, England, Scotland, the Netherlands and the USA, as well as some dazzling late-night films involving objects and animation.
Monday’s show – already seen in Aberdeen and Lochgelly – was To The End Of Love, by TIP Connection of Finland; a 60-minute performance in which a happy young bride, married to a man represented only by a hefty jacket and hat on a stick, gradually learns of the many other women in his past, represented by a series of white slips that she finds hidden among his clothes.
There are some haunting, beautiful and terrible images in TIP’s show, and some very classy music around the theme of obsessive love, from the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams to the moody Leonard Cohen title song. There’s something slightly unsatisfying, though, about the link between story, music and images; it’s as if TIP are just using powerful images to tell an almost lazily simple tale, instead of taking a simple tale, and using all the power of object theatre to extend and change its meanings.
Nuku Theatre of Estonia, by contrast – seen at the Traverse on Tuesday – are an explosively playful group of young theatremakers who often let their physical inventiveness lead them into madly unpredictable territory. In a fierce 70 minutes, their show A Wild Growling Happiness – featuring five female performers, two musicians, male and female, and a woman in a top hat with a laptop typing up the projected text – combines some kind of creation-and-destruction myth (an entire history of the human race and its overweening ambition) with an effusive rush of observations about life, relationships, and sheer romping play among today’s twentysomething theatre students and their contemporaries.
The main “objects” used in this show are huge twisted white sheets, made into landscapes, parcels, and teetering, walking puppets; the music is brilliant, involving percussion and some superb Sami-style singing, with ringing bowls; the quality of the physical comedy is often sharp, hilarious, breathtaking.
For myself, I could have done with fewer in-jokes about being a theatre student, and a tighter focus on the links between the different strands of material. As a wild, growling overview of a world dominated by apocalypse on one hand and self-obsessed trivia on the other, though, this show has a huge, joyful force behind it; and out of such an Estonian goldmine of ideas and energy, more brilliant work is bound to emerge.
• Manipulate continues at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until Saturday; Vox Motus’s Slick, also part of Manipulate, plays at the Traverse next week, 13-16 February.