Manipulate reviews: Ragnarok | The House | L'amour du risque

This year’s Manipulate festival offers everything from inspired physical physical comedy to heartbreaking tragedy. Reviews by Joyce McMillan

Ragnarok, Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling ****

The House, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ****

L’Amour Du Risque, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh ****

When I came out of the premier performance of Ragnarok, at the Macrobert in Stirling, I flicked through the images on my phone, and saw a short video of two little brothers – aged perhaps five and three – walking along a devastated street in Gaza, holding hands tightly, and carrying an almost-empty water bottle. It was an image, tragically, that could have come straight from the show we had just experienced; a tale both grimly apocalyptic, and frighteningly close to today’s reality, in too many places on earth.

This latest show by Scotland’s most acclaimed object theatre company, Tortoise In a Nutshell, is a piece of live animation theatre in which the images we see on screen are lovingly created before our eyes by a team of four performers who shift small-scale cityscapes, mountain ranges and forests into position, along with dozens of tiny clay human figures; and then delicately focus cameras on them, to tell a tale based on the old Norse legend of the end of the world, known as Ragnarok. The story revolves around a young girl called Aya and her little brother, who flee their crumbling and starving city to try to reach their grandparents’ old house by the sea.

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In a show that uses almost every form of visual theatre – including masks and movement – to conjure up its colliding worlds, they are also accompanied on their journey by a fierce series of animal gods, from the Great Snake that crushes the world, to a one-eyed raven that speaks especially to Aya, telling her that she will be Aya The Last, the one remaining witness to the death of the world, and its eventual rebirth.

It is a frightening tale, full of sorrow and loss, and of strange leaps between ancient mythology and 21st century reality; yet it is delivered here with such care and invention, and such profound feeling, that it becomes impossible to dismiss. And the show is driven along by a passionate and moving score and soundscape by Jim Harbourne; to emerge, in the end, as something like a modern oratorio in sound and vision, that breaks the heart, and challenges the conscience.

L'amour du risque PIC: Greg BouchetL'amour du risque PIC: Greg Bouchet
L'amour du risque PIC: Greg Bouchet

Ragnarok will arrive at the Manipulate Festival in Edinburgh next weekend; and meanwhile, as ever, the city’s annual feast of visual theatre and animation has been offering an opening weekend full of international delights, including Sofie Krog Theater of Denmark’s delicious international favourite The House, which opened the Manipulate programme at the Traverse.

Set in a gorgeously-made model of a decrepit old house which is home to a family undertakers’ business – crematorium and all – this small-scale but highly entertaining 60-minute horror-show for teenagers and adults tells the hair-raising tale of what happens when the family’s dying matriarch tries to change her will, cutting her feeble nephew Harry and his scheming, cheroot-smoking wife out of their inheritance.

And at the Fruitmarket Gallery, international stars Bakelite, from Brittany, deliver the first of their two Festival shows in L’Amour Du Risque, an inspired 30 minutes of physical comedy in the finest French tradition, described as a ballet for robot vacuum cleaners.

A man enters a restaurant, only to find that the service is to be provided by a team of four robots, buzzing across the floor in straight lines only, who seem distinctly limited – although sometimes oddly ingenious – in their artificial intelligence grasp of what they’re supposed to be doing. What emerges is both a hilarious commentary on the limits of robot assistance – superbly performed by Bakelite’s founder Olivier Rannou, as the man – and a timeless satire on restaurant service at its worst; and both are greeted with peals of laughter, from an enthralled and delighted audience.

Ragnarok is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 10-11 February, and on tour across Scotland until 28 March. The House and L’Amour Du Risque, runs completed.