Manipulate 2020: Two visual theatre shows with clear messages
Having presented thirteen editions thus far, the Manipulate Festival has managed not only to create a loyal following for its programme of visual theatre in Scotland, but it has also established a definition of the genre that is both extensive and distinctive. Between the boundaries of dance and scripted performance, Manipulate events include mime, aerial and clown, as well as experimental theatre that uses the visual image as the prime driver of meaning, character and narrative. Paper Doll Militia's A Wire Apart is an aerial work with an element of clowning: Fault Lines by Two Destination Language uses the format of the fashion show to explore 'women, bodies, power, identities, opportunities, histories'.
Both productions demonstrate the power of visual theatre to express a message with charm and efficiency. A Wire Apart follows a male-female relationship through the tangle of online communication – a soundtrack featuring the familiar electronic intrusions of social media and a set covered in wires – while Fault Lines takes female stereotypes and archetypes, and plays with them through a celebratory subversion. A Wire Apart has a more traditional narrative – girl meets boy, they struggle with the distractions of gaming, social media and the immediate gratifications of the online world: Fault Lines is a series of extended riffs on roles and identities, culminating in a sardonic commentary on woman as cleaner.
Fault Lines / credit: Beth Chalmers
Within these structures, the productions use symbolism and imagery to conjure moments of profundity. Ultimately tending towards the spectacular, Paper Doll Militia lambasts a culture that encourages vanity through the selfie, and passive selfishness through gaming, before discovering a beautiful gesture in the creation of a flower from the wires to represent a compromise between rejecting and using computer technology. Balancing on a wire, the two lovers struggle to communicate and meet, but there is a cheerful optimism in their journeys and reconciliation.
Fault Lines does take on oppressive stereotypes but undermines them through the joy and wit of the ensemble, skewering the power dynamics of patriarchal gender determinism. The simple format – the performers pose on the catwalk in a variety of outfits which describe identities – is exploded by the audience's choice of soundtrack: using an online app, there is a choice of six channels, which variously juxtapose music and commentary to the movement.
Aside from the diverse skills and genres in their dramaturgies, the difference between the two shows is perhaps primarily in the way that A Wire Apart and Fault Lines invites audience engagement. A Wire is more explicit in its message, while the choice of channels speaks of Two Destination Language's lighter touch, allowing for different experiences through the different musical, or spoken word, paths. Yet they both affirm the immediacy and articulacy of visual theatre and express the potential of Manipulate's chosen curatorial direction.
Reviewed at Summerhall, Edinburgh.
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