Manipulate Festival is back in Edinburgh

06 04 2022

Photo: Chris Nash

Author: Andrea Cabrera Luna

Manipulate Festival, curated by Puppet Animation Scotland, is an annual international festival in January and February which presents new and exciting Scottish and international small-scale shows. These include puppets, visual theatre, physical theatre, dance theatre, clowning, experimental theatre, object theatre, circus performance and animation. The Festival is unique in Scotland presenting shows where the text is not the most prominent element, offering an alternative to the usual text-based theatre.  Manipulate Festival may be considered the Scottish equivalent of the London International Mime Festival.

Since 2008, Edinburgh has hosted many of the best companies from Europe and Latin America, Australia, Japan, the United States, Russia, Israel and South Korea, among other countries as part of the Festival.

Manipulate Festival was presented online in January 2021 due to pandemic restrictions. This year the festival was scheduled with the hope of performing again in front of live audiences. Unfortunately, several shows were cancelled because of the Omicron variant outbreak. Despite these challenges, the Festival succeeded in staging live performances at the Festival Studio, in a well-ventilated space with reduced seating and social distancing. There were also performances at Summerhall and experiences available online.

Short and Sweet

Duo Thick and Tight, Eleanor Perry and Daniel Hey-Gordon, presented Short and Sweet. The seven new pieces the duo created for this show were indeed short, ranging from 10 to 15 minutes each, and remarkably brilliant.

Short and Sweet mixes lip-sync, drag and queer cultures, multiple virtuoso dance styles, as well as parody, pantomime and pastiche. Perry and Hay-Gordon dance in the two pieces that open and close the show and choreographed the entire performance.

Originally commissioned by the Noh Reimagined Festival, Two Moths in Real Time, clearly inspired by the Noh theatre, is the only piece that does not pay tribute to any real character. The two dancers wear identical costumes of white puffy shorts and Pierrot/Noh style makeup. Although the costumes which characterised their past creations were absent, the brand of the duo shines through in the composition of the headdresses which simulate the eyes and tubular mouths of moths, visible when the performers turn their backs to the audience. The piece takes place in a rectangular space demarcated with thin white neon in the simple and elegant design by Lucy Hansom and Nao Nagai

Cage & Paige: We Could Go On and On was an imaginary dialogue between the experimental musician John Cage and Elaine Paige, the queen of commercial musical. This unlikely duo interacts through the magic of assembling fragments of interviews that Perry and Hay-Gordon use to lip-sync; personifying and amplifying the gestures and attitudes of the famous performers. Paige's laughter builds towards the end becoming increasingly contagious, while an audio with the voice of Cage says, “there are two things that don't have to mean anything; one is music, and the other is laughter”.

In addition to the live pieces, Ode to Edith was screened online, a tribute to Edith Sitwell, performed by members of learning diverse ensembles Corali Dance Company and The Camberwell Incredibles. Sitwell's voiceover conveys a non-conformist attitude that celebrates differences and eccentricities. The dancers wear costumes and jewellery made with recycled materials to personify the eccentric poet, incorporating theatrical gestures against a backdrop of clouds moving across a red sky. The use of aluminium foil is a nod to the playful quality of her work.

Emerging talent collaborated in the rest of the pieces, such as Connor Scott, who plays Syd Vicious as an electric doll showing the scars of self-harm, contrasting youth and plenitude with fragility and self-destruction. Azara Meghie offers a touching tribute to Grace Jones, an icon who defied the conventions of what a black woman could do in the racist and misogynist world of the 1970s, and the absolutely magnificent Oxana Panchenco plays a “camp” Rasputin and mixes ballet with traditional Russian dance and disco music steps. Panchenco takes camp to a level of prodigious virtuosity that could inspire even the most sceptical audience to return to theatre venues despite pandemic restrictions.

(le) Pain

French performer Jean Daniel Broussé presented his first solo show (le) Pain, directed by Úrsula Martínez. The title plays with the meaning of pain in English and pain, or bread, in French. The piece begins with Broussé playing the accordion and showing videos of his hometown in Occitania, southern France, a region with extensive pastures, cattle and tradition. Instead of reproaching his people for intolerance towards a young gay man like himself, Broussé focuses the drama on his relationship with his father, a baker who inherited not only the name of his ancestors but also the bakery where they worked all their lives and who adamantly hopes that his son will follow the same path.

Broussé’s interests, including his desire for a school friend and the dream of becoming an actor, are more important than family tradition. The actor jokes that yielding to his father's hopes will make him not only the only baker but also the only gay man in town. The metal bakery table, bowls and, most significantly, a burning oven on stage promises a remarkable finale. The liturgical structure of the night is enhanced by the steps taken in the preparation of the baguettes, which lends itself to playful phallic references. What are the ingredients of bread? Pounds and pounds of patriarchy and more than a pinch of irreverent humour.

While preparing the dough, Broussé asks the audience if they know the Latin origin of the word “companion”. One member of the audience ventures to answer that it reflects the act of sharing bread (pain). The actor warns that at the end of the show, when the bread is ready to be shared, we shall all be companions. Although the show is humorous, relaxed and light, the central internal conflict of the pain of not being able to meet a father's expectations, dedicating one's life to the bakery, is inferred. There are references to Jesus Christ, who, according to Broussé, did not follow the carpenter's trade of his father Joseph, preferring instead the thorny profession of messiah. We see projections of Broussé's father announcing that he will soon retire, since his son is not interested in the bakery business. To further complicate his relationship with bread (pain), Broussé discovers that he is allergic to gluten. The internal conflict is expressed in poetic acrobatics and the outcome is a moving moment of fragility and nudity. Instead of being just another story of individual trauma, (le) Pain invites communion, presenting a moving story of love for parents and the inevitable pain of growing up and not being able to be who they expect. The pain of rejecting and of being rejected. 

Eat Me

Eat Me is a visual theatre piece directed by Eszter Marsalko, a leading member of Edinburgh-based women's collective Snap-Elastic.  Claire Eliza Willoughby, Isy Sharman, and Ian Cameron performed as Prey, Predator and Man -a voyeur who watches his neighbours. The show tells the story of the three unnamed characters who one night decided to download Tor software to access the Dark Web.  Prey pleads: “Help. I need someone to eat me." This anecdote recalls one of the most complex criminal cases. Armin Meiwes, a 42 -year-old German, agreed to eat another man as an act of consensual cannibalism. Prey thinks that being eaten by someone else qualifies as an act of love. It is unclear whether she is looking for love, hoping to fulfil a sexual fantasy or both.  Predator, like Meiwes, agrees to eat Prey with her consent. Pre-recorded monologues overlap Christine Devaney's choreography, and the actors make an admirable effort not to subvert the magic and solemnity of the play. Orton's scenography, composed of walls covered with mirrors, presents the movements on stage from different perspectives and suggests a game of reflections. The characters seldom recognise each other while immersed in their inner monologue. The work depicts the loneliness of the visitors to the Dark Web and the tensions between longing and isolation in big cities. When Prey and Predator finally meet, Prey no longer wants to be eaten. Predator rejects this change of heart, and suddenly the roles seem to be reversed. After a fierce fight, the expectation of seeing a cannibal show ends unfulfilled. Prey runs away, deflecting the blows from a defeated Predator. The finale is an observation about consent vs violation. Inspired by Han Kang's The Vegetarian, Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat, Nordic Noir and contemporary horror films, Eat Me questions the role of women as damsels in distress looking for help. 

This article was first published in Revista de titeres, sombras y marionetas Titeresante. The translation and republishing was done with the with the editor's kind permission.