On a stage, there’s a huge red plush armchair, and a tall, slim young woman, checking out her ticket like any other member of the audience. She soon discovers that her seat is the big one on stage; and from that moment, it’s all about her relationship with the chair, as she struggles to find a comfortable position on it, luxuriates in it and massages its shoulders, suddenly disappears into it, and then reappears again, from unexpected angles.
The show is La Causeuse, The Love-Seat, (****) by the French-Canadian creator and performer Olivia Fay Lathuilliere; and it seems, in many ways, like an iconic piece of work for the 2017 Manipulate Festival of visual theatre at the Traverse. In the first place, it’s a very fine show, full of invention, and sadness and a rich, self-deprecating humour, expressed in powerful physical comedy. Beyond that, it is a near-perfect example of how to use a particular physical object as something like an active partner in theatre; the best Manipulate shows always contain this element of questioning about boundaries between ourselves, as humans, and the physical objects that surround us.
And finally, it revolves around the image of a woman alone trying to find and shape her own identity, in a sometimes threatening world; an image that has recurred throughout this year’s Festival, and also appeared in the hugely inventive and touching Make A HOO (****), the latest piece from young Scottish theatre artist Sita Pieraccini, and in the always fascinating and sometimes stunning Whispers (4stars), by veteran Belgian solo theatre-maker Nicole Mossoux and her creative partner Patrick Bonte, who were among the founding artists at the first Manipulate festival in 2008.
If the solo female presence has been a powerful one in this year’s Manipulate, though, there’s also a rowdier strand of large-scale theatre that tries to confront the strange political moment we live in. This weekend, the festival welcomes the Agrupacion Señor Serrano from Barcelona, with a complex and spectacular multi-layered show about American dream and the killing of Osama Bin Laden, in A House In Asia. And earlier in the week, there was an uneven but hugely energetic intervention from the young London and Glasgow-based group Company of Wolves, in the shape of their latest show The End Of Things (***).
Ranging between moments of great intensity and some sequences that look like amateur improvisation sessions, this show for a cast of five dancer-performers actually provoked a few walkouts, during one long-drawn-out scene featuring a wailing end-of-the-world karaoke. Yet for all its occasional lack of discipline and discrimination, there is something admirable about the sheer ambition of this show, which genuinely tries to imagine the crumbling of our world, in a brief hour of theatre.
And as well as the rangy and ambitious, there is also the current interest in the small and in miniature worlds, expressed not only in the tiny, squeaky, raging small-scale amorality of the Punch figure, on display in Compagnie La Pendue of France’s memorable traditional-style puppet show Poli Degaine (****), but also in the beautiful Canadian show Cities (****), by Olivier Ducas of Theatre De La Pire Espece. In 80 minutes or so, using a strange collection of items on a table, a live camera and a screen, Ducas conjures up more than 20 imaginary cities named after women with whom he might have had relationships, if he hadn’t been obsessed with the classic collector’s impulse to own, catalogue and organise the universe. It’s gentle, powerful and profound; and behind it there is that other backbeat of knowledge - shared with many of this year’s shows - that even our great cities are transient things, and in the end really little more than a handful of dust, caught under a strong light.
*Manipulate continues at the Traverse Theatre until tonight. The End Of Things is on tour across Scotland until 18 March.