Festival preview: Manipulate - Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Waltz with Bashir
Waltz with Bashir
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Manipulate is primarily a festival of puppetry, but it embraces all forms of metamorphosis, including film, animation, live theatre and even dance

IF YOU often go to Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, you’ll frequently find it transformed. In August, it’s an unofficial club bar for the Fringe; sometimes, it’s a hub of new music for Noisy Nights; at other times, it’s a honeypot for dance fans, or lovers of children’s theatre. It’ll change again from Monday when the annual Manipulate visual theatre festival takes residence, attracting a different kind of audience again.

Millhaven: part of Off to to the Asylum

Millhaven: part of Off to to the Asylum

Aptly, it is a festival about transformation. The week-long line-up includes a range of styles – object theatre, shadow puppetry, animation and physical theatre – linked by a fascination with what happens when one thing becomes another.

“Puppets do not do language particularly well, but they do transformation incredibly well,” says festival director Simon Hart. “They create a complete world where unusual and unexpected things can happen.”

Watch any child at play and you’ll see how central transformation is to our imaginations. Give a four-year-old a box and it’ll become a boat or a house or a spaceship. A simple stick will become an animal or a weapon. Children need no lessons in how to do it; they know instinctively. The capacity for metaphor is hardwired into the way we think about the world.

It’s why adult audiences get excited when they see a bone spinning in the air suddenly switch into a floating space ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s why they loved the pool table being changed into an army truck in the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch. And it’s why they delight in a lump of clay becoming a little man called Morph in the Take Hart animations created by Aardman.

“All of our work is about that on some level,” says Hart. “A person, a puppet or an inanimate object is transformed through our imagination and takes on extra significance.”

So although Manipulate is commonly described as a puppet festival – and puppetry plays a major part – its scope is much broader. Consider Polaris, a show about two men facing their final days in the Antarctic. Raved about when it played on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008, it is a piece of physical theatre by the Czech company Wariot Ideal, in which the actors turn themselves into penguins, walruses, birds and bears.

The fact it is actors, not puppets, making these transformations is no obstacle to Hart: “When we meet them they are two explorers who are lost, but they then transform themselves through their own physicality into the animals they see around them as they have these hallucinations.”

It’s the same story with Luvos, created by Austrian choreographer Editta Braun. This vision of a genetically modified human race turns the real body parts of the five performers into something as alien as any puppet could be.

“Weird and wonderful plants and animals populate this bleak landscape,” says Hart. “It’s intriguing how versatile the human body is.”

There’s a similar reasoning behind his inclusion of animated films in the programme. There are screenings of Chico & Rita, a Cuban-themed Spanish film; Goodbye Mr Christie, about the secret life of a family man living in an English village; Waltz with Bashir, an animated documentary about the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in 1982; and Off to the Asylum, a programme of eight short films from Europe.

“Animation is on the continuum of transformation, whether it’s stop-frame animation or the CGI transformation of an actor’s body,” he says. “In Waltz with Bashir, the story of a man in a very extreme situation of war is transformed even within the film itself as he has his dreams.”

None of this is to diminish the contribution of puppet companies to the festival. Their work, as ever, deals with serious grown-up themes. Hamletmachine, for example, is a puppet version of a play by Heiner Muller, a key figure of German political avant garde theatre. With a voiceover specially recorded by Scotland’s Barrie Hunter for an English-speaking audience, it projects images onto a screen of misty rain.

“It’s a very stylish piece of work,” says Hart. “Using a text is relatively rare in visual theatre for adults, which tends to be devised work.”

Plucked … A True Fairy Tale by Liz Walker, a founder member of Faulty Optic, is a bizarre creation mixing video, puppetry and animation and a wayward sense of fun. That it features a dog with a singing penis indicates it won’t be for those of a sensitive disposition. “It’s in that English, Heath Robinson-esque tradition, seemingly thrown together but with lovely manipulation,” says Hart. “It’s a macabre domestic drama about a couple who keep having babies who run away from them because the first baby is a train, the second is a car and the third is a TV set.”

As well as pieces of English shadow play and French visual theatre (replacing Russia’s Akhe Engineering Theatre which has had visa problems), Manipulate is also giving a showcase to Scottish work. The ten-minute pieces created for Snapshots involve acclaimed puppeteers Ailie Cohen, Shona Reppe and Tortoise in a Nutshell collaborating with three directors – Gerry Mulgrew, Mark Thomson and Dominic Hill – better known for their theatre work. “We have world class practitioners and when people see their work they are blown away by their imagination,” says Hart.

The advantage of running such a diverse mix of shows alongside one another in a concentrated festival is it gives audiences a greater willingness to explore the unfamiliar. “Our audiences do tend to come to two or more shows, therefore they get a pretty good sense of what’s out there in visual theatre,” says Hart. “They come to the 7.30pm show and then think, ‘Oh, that film looks interesting.’ They’re already in the mindset of trying it and seeing what happens. It’s a great way to get this work shown in front of new people.”

• Manipulate is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 30 January until 4 February. www.traverse.co.uk