Theatre review: Manipulate, Edinburgh

The Traverse Theatre. Picture: TSPLThe Traverse Theatre. Picture: TSPL
The Traverse Theatre. Picture: TSPL
OVER the last five years, the Manipulate Festival has emerged as one of the unsung small miracles of the Scottish cultural scene.


Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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Every February, it looms out of the winter darkness, offering a week of world-class visual theatre, puppetry and animation at the Traverse and other venues across the country – this year, three shows appeared at the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen, before making their way south.

The 2014 programme includes work from The Netherlands, the United States, Estonia, Germany, Russia, Sweden and Austria, as well as from the UK; and as the director Simon Hart points out, at a time when arts budgets are being slashed across Europe, Scotland is fortunate in that it still has the resources not only to host such a festival, but to support a growing number of Scottish visual theatre artists whose work matches Manipulate’s high standards.

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The week began, though, with an international show par excellence, as a rowdy bunch from The Netherlands called Dudapaiva – working with companies in Norway and Slovenia – rolled out their visually breathtaking satirical show Bestiaires, about the plight of the Greek gods in a time of 21st century economic crisis. Introduced by camp Cupid in a blonde wig, the jokily self-referential script weaves around a drama of brilliantly choreographed movement and stunning full-body puppetry, as the gods Persephone, Hades and Zeus, modelled in eerily lifelike foam rubber, heave themselves out of the rocks at the back of the stage and begin to sing their post-modern blues.

On Tuesday, Stephen Mottram’s Animata, from Oxford, presented The Seas Of Organillo, a gorgeous marionette meditation on fertility and birth set in the depths of a dark ocean, and accompanied by a strange, wonderful, whimsical and touching score created by composer Sebastian Castagna for a tiny harmonium built by Mottram out of an old wardrobe. This was followed in quick time by the world premiere of Faux Theatre’s Torn, a hugely promising piece by young Scottish artist Francisca Morton – with Foley artist and composer Barney Strachan – which conjures up the tragi-comic despair of a broken relationship, in a lonely room full of torn paper.

And later in the week, there was an hour of vivid ten-minute pieces from the emerging artists of Scotland’s Scrapyard, a superbly inventive and haunting marionette meditation on the inner life of Alberto Giacometti delivered by the Figurentheater of Tuebingen, a revisiting of Tortoise In a Nutshell of Edinburgh’s fine 2012 anti-war show Grit, pictured left, and a wonderful evening of screenings and discussion with the great Estonian animator, Priit Parn.

The festival rolls on until this evening, with performances and events throughout the day. And if it has a unifying theme, then I would say that that theme is love; love for the stuff of which our material world is made, love for the many species that inhabit it, and love for the imaginative process that transforms one thing into another, builds a new story and keeps travelling on.

• Manipulate ends today