Manipulate reviews: Tess | Last Rites | Surge Double Bill

One of the highlights of this year’s Manipulate festival is a surprisingly conventional ballet version of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, writes Joyce McMillan

Tess, Traverse, Edinburgh ****

Last Rites, The Studio, Edinburgh ****

Surge Double Bill, The Studio, Edinburgh (works in progress)


It’s been a rich and varied week at the Manipulate Festival, Edinburgh’s annual feast of visual theatre; and in a sense, no show has caused more excitement among Festival-goers than the latest work from London-based company Ockham’s Razor – precisely because, unlike most Manipulate shows, it takes a relatively conventional form.

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Jointly adapted and created by the company’s artistic directors Charlotte Mooney and Alex Harvey, Tess is essentially a fully-formed two hour ballet with strong circus and acrobatic elements, faithfully based on Thomas Hardy’s great 1891 novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles, about an innocent 16-year-old country girl who becomes pregnant in a casual act of rape by a wealthy young man; and whose life is ruined by that single incident.

The show has a spoken narration delivered with memorable intensity by Macadie Amoroso, as a slightly older Tess. For the most part, though, it speaks in the language of movement, as its cast of five women and two men – led by a heartbreakingly luminous Lila Naruse as the young Tess – both offer a powerfully physical illustrative version of the narrative, and embody the life of hard agricultural labour, sometimes gruelling, sometimes exhilarating, into which Tess has been born.

On a powerful and ingenious set by Tina Bicat, they therefore raise milking sheds, build hills and bridges, and conjure up backdrops from small-town streets to looming gallows, all using an interlocking set of strong wooden planks and blocks; and yet the action is so fluently expressed through Nathan Johnston’s choreography, and shaped by Holly Khan’s fine music and sound, that the physical work of the cast blends perfectly into Hardy’s story. Hardy subtitled his novel A Pure Woman, in defiance of conventional 19th century morality. And perhaps the emotional power of this new stage version owes something to the fact that many of cruel attitudes and glaring double standards that Tess encounters in her brief life remain all too recognisable to us, even 130 years on.

Last Rites PIC: Jack OffordLast Rites PIC: Jack Offord
Last Rites PIC: Jack Offord

At The Studio, meanwhile, the wonderful Glasgow-based performer and theatre-maker Ramesh Meyyappan offered a profound and moving 70 minutes of theatre co-created with the Ad Infinitum company of Bristol, and its joint artistic director George Mann. In Last Rites, Meyyappan uses a powerful combination of movement and sound, visual imagery and projected text, to tell the tale of a man who has long since left his family in India to make a new life in the UK, but who finds himself called back to his father’s deathbed, and to perform the last rites expected of a son in his parents’ culture.

What gives the show its special and sometimes shocking edge, though, is the complexity of the man’s relationship with his father, as he confronts the huge tensions that drove them apart, including his father’s refusal to acknowledge or respond to his son’s deafness; and as one of the UK’s leading deaf theatre-makers, Meyyappan brings both tremendous passion, and a mighty theatrical lyricism, to this story of a boy loved after a fashion, but never truly allowed or encouraged to be himself.

And finally, it was a pure joy, as part of Manipulate, to be able to glimpse two emerging pieces from the Glasgow based Surge organisation, specialising in street theatre and circus skills. In Althea Young’s Hover – already a well-shaped half-hour piece – a woman interacts intensely and sometimes frighteningly with a camera drone that becomes her stage partner; meanwhile Nikhita Devi’s fascinating fragment, titled I, Honeypot, conjures up a robot dancer programmed to entertain with elements of traditional Indian dance, to chilling effect. Both shows fairy explode with energy and invention in navigating the new world of robotics and artificial intelligence; and offering the prospect of a wave of human creativity not crushed by these new technologies, but moved by them, to reach new heights.

Runs completed. The Manipulate Festival continues in venues across Edinburgh until 11 February,

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