IT’S ALMOST 27 years since Jeanette Winterson chose the phrase “written on the body” as the title of her novel about the aftermath of a failed love-affair; but the words come irresistibly back to mind, after a few days spent absorbing the atmosphere of this year’s Manipulate Festival of visual theatre.
Invisible Lands ****
Nino (work in progress)
Faced with the world’s growing refugee crisis, for example, Livsmedlet Theatre of Finland – puppeteer Ishmael Falke and dancer-choreographer Sandra Lindgren – combine the passionate, loving miniaturism of a show like Vox Motus’s Flight (a refugee story told through a rolling band of tiny, beautifully-crafted installations) with a more directly choreographic approach, to produce a remarkable one-hour show that alternates fiercely between a wide-angle view of tiny refugee figures struggling across the landscapes of the artists’ bodies – from Falke’s broad back and shoulders to Lindgren’s blue-painted, rippling belly – to a shocking sense of close-up, as the performers suddenly become the refugees in the story.
In Nino – the latest work-in-progress from Glasgow-based company Tidy Carnage – the experience written on the body of solo performer Melanie Jordan is that of poverty, and dependence on the UK’s increasingly draconian social security system. Inspired by the statistic that 4.6 million people in Britain are living in poverty, and directed by Tidy Carnage founder Alllie Butler, Nino is essentially a vividly theatrical 50-minute dance piece, with a remarkable soundtrack, about the experience of isolation, humiliation, rebellious rage and creeping self-hatred entailed in living poor in what is otherwise an affluent western society; full of raw anger and remarkable inventiveness, it seems set to be one of the key Scottish-made solo pieces of 2019.
Mele Broomes’s Void, by contrast – co-produced by Feral of Scotland with F/DA and MHz – is already well-established show, winner of a Total Theatre Award for dance during the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe; but here, too, the story is told through the body of a magnificent dancer and performer, as JG Ballard’s cult 1974 novel Concrete Island – about a traveller who spins out of control on to a traffic island in an anonymous urban landscape, and into another dimension – is reimagined via a black female protagonist, and worked out not only in fierce choreography, but in rivers of fast-changing light, colour, pattern and sound.
After such intense encounters between narrative and the body, there’s a definite dialling-down of intensity in some of this year’s Manipulate shows designed to revolve more around the objects on stage. Compagnie Sakecripa’s Vu, from Toulouse, France, is a sublime piece of super-refined clowning, in which a man in an anorak enters the theatre, removes his jacket to reveal a nondescript shirt and trousers, and takes an hour to make and drink a cup of tea, using ever more ingenious and obsessive micro-methods to get the water, teabag, milk and sugar-lump into his mug.
The effect is hilarious, and a little more than that; not least because of the powerful and poignant character Manceau creates for himself, a slightly sad and compulsive figure, but completely undefeated, and charismatic enough to extract extraordinary levels of compliance from the audience member whose help he demands, in his strange journey through the infuriating and joyful minutiae of life.
And then there’s Intronauts, by Green Ginger of England with Nordland Visual Theatre of Norway, an engaging show that features a touching central performance by co-deviser Emma Keaveney-Roys as the intronaut of the title, but which is dominated by a large piece of theatrical kit in the shape of her ship, a miniature sanitation vehicle in which – in some heavily computerised future world full of artificial intelligence – she patrols the inside of her owner’s body, sorting out his aches, pains and itches.
Intronaut is full of thought-provoking moments and inventive sequences of object and visual theatre, as the heroine’s solitary owner instructs her to go out of bounds into his brain, and sort out his feelings of sadness and depression. Somehow, though, the fascinating objects, machines and screens on stage seem to distance us a little from the characters in a way that is slightly out of tune with the mood of this year’s festival, and of its most powerful work.
The Manipulate Festival continues at the Traverse today, 9 February, with further performances at Perth Theatre this evening, and at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, on Tuesday