Theatre review: Manipulate Festival, various venues, Edinburgh

Saturday afternoon at Summerhall, and on the floor of the old Anatomy Lecture Theatre something is stirring. Three male figures lie stranded in the sixth circle of hell. One rises and sings like a monk at prayer, one glows with an unearthly light as he burns in his personal hell and one emotes like the poet he is; Dante Alighieri, the 14th-century Florentine genius who dared, in an age dominated by Latin verse, to use his own Tuscan language to explore great matters of life, death and eternity.

Sketches, by Katie Armstrong PIC: Eoin Carey

The show is a work-in-progress called Canto X, created by the Edinburgh group Fronteiras Theatre Lab, including writer-dramaturg Jen McGregor and director Flavia D’Avila. Although, at the moment, it exists only as a 20-minute fragment, it shows that the spirit of 19th-century symbolism lives on in the hearts of young Scottish-based theatremakers.


It remains as high-risk a path as it was when young Konstantin in Chekhov’s Seagull first staged his much-mocked drama by the lake in 1896, but there’s also something rich, strong and lyrical in McGregor’s engagement with the work of Dante and in the interweaving of movement, music and dialogue to explore the meaning of his great poem.

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Canto X was just one of 17 live shows playing at Summerhall on Saturday, in an all-day showcase – mainly featuring the work of young and emerging Scottish artists – to mark the beginning of Scotland’s annual international festival of visual theatre.


For me, the exquisite artistic highlight of the day was a solo show called Ersatz (*****), by French company Collectif Aie Aie Aie, in which superb artist and performer Julien Mellano, sitting at a desk surrounded by glaring screens, evokes a deeply moving absurdist image of a future life made up of virtual experiences, in which human beings become almost like robots, while the planet dies around us.  Aie Aie Aie also brought their charming 30-minute erotic comedy Ma Biche Et Mon Lapin (****). Between them, these two shows, each with its own flawless narrative arc, set a memorably high bar of thematic coherence and technical perfection.


Measuring up in impressive style, though, were Scottish absurdists Swallow The Sea Caravan with a perfectly pitched 20-minute cameo called Lamp (****), inspired by the dramatic potential of two large old-fashioned fringed lampshades, and Dundee’s Nunah Theatre, with Vicky Heath’s ferociously intense physical theatre work-in-progress Remember, about a woman driven to violence by a lifetime of bullying.


A little less certain in tone and execution were Mary & David Grieve’s lovely, pensive  puppet piece Shadow Bird (***), about the inner life and dreams of an old down-and-out drinking in a Scottish pub, Katie Armstrong’s over-extended but sometimes brilliantly intense abstract dance piece Sketches (***) and Oceanallover’s brilliantly colourful Transfigured (***), which deserves lavish praise for the beauty and wildness of its singing and for its gorgeous quilted fabric costumes, evoking something between the constantly reshuffling pack of cards on which the show is based, and a Shakespearean shipwreck; but nul points for its leaden script, poor dramaturgy and old-fashioned, super-arch white-face acting style.


All of which provokes some thought about the role of the abstract, the stylised, the symbolic and the absurd in theatre, more than a century after these concepts began to disturb the certainties of contrived stage naturalism. Like the mummers of old, visually stunning stylised spectacles such as Transfigured can still delight large crowds at street festivals. Yet in itself, and indoors, non-naturalistic theatre often still seems plagued by problems of accessibility and inclusion. It was striking, for example, that there was not a single performer of colour in any of the eight shows I saw at Summerhall on Saturday.


As an arena for theatrical experiment, in other words – in the brilliant use of light and objects, and in expanding the technical possibilities of theatre – the Manipulate Festival plays its role magnificently.  In building a bridge between experimental performance and the wider world, though, it faces a tougher task, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out, as the festival continues this week at Summerhall and the Festival Theatre Studio. Joyce McMillan

Manipulate 2020 continues in Edinburgh until 8 February. For details see https://www.manipulatefestival.org/whatson