Young Critics at Manipulate 2020: Shadow puppetry, physical theatre, solo performance and more

  • The List
  • 11 February 2020
Young Critics at Manipulate 2020:

Shadowbird

Part of Manipulate's new young critics programme, Sara García, Hazel Adie and Alison Frater give their thoughts on some highlights of the visual theatre festival

With the goal of encouraging young and emerging writers to engage with visual theatre, this year's Manipulate Festival saw the launch of a new young critics programme, offering free tickets to a full day of shows, as well as financial support for lunch and travel expenses. Puppet Animation Scotland have worked hard to foster the Scottish visual theatre community in their annual festival over the past decade, and with their new young critics programme, they intend to do much the same with the wider critical community.

As well as seeing various shows over the course of a day, Sara García, Hazel Adie and Alison Frater were invited to chat to journalists and performers at the festival to get a unique insight into Manipulate and how the festival itself is run. Read on to find out what the young critics thought of their chosen shows.

Young Critics at Manipulate 2020:

Journey

Hazel Adie on Journey, Lamp, Temple of the Tattie and Ma Biche et Mon Lapin

As a newcomer to Manipulate Festival, I am so glad to have discovered this wonderful explosion of a festival that's been sitting right under my nose for far too long. I spent my time racing from one show to another, seeing six over the course of one day. My favourite thing about Manipulate is the variety of shows on offer; from the heartfelt and deeply emotional Remember by Nunah Theatre – a piece 'focusing on the unreliability of memory' (presented at the festival as a work in progress) – to the playful and cheeky Finger Fatale by Ella Mackay in which a woman so convincingly brings her own hand to life as a character, the audience cannot help but laugh at the raunchy interplay between her and her own hand.

Half of the shows I saw on Saturday were being presented in spaces quite different to what would be their norm and each did well to adapt to their new surroundings. Both Journey and Lamp, presented by Swallow the Sea, are usually performed in a tiny caravan, so adapting both pieces to a men's locker room meant a jump in audience numbers from four or so to upwards of ten. Due to there being so much space around the shadow screen the performer was using, one particular kaleidoscopic effect – cleverly created using a torch and a piece of sequin fabric – stretched beyond the confines of the screen and onto the surrounding walls which helped break down the boundary between performance and audience, drawing you further into the story.

While at the festival, I had the opportunity to speak to Emma Brierley, who was at Manipulate with her show Temple of the Tattie. Brierley is also a founding member of Swallow the Sea. We spoke about the challenges of moving a show originally created for an outdoor setting, indoors. Temple of the Tattie relies heavily on audience interaction; when outside, people can watch for a while before deciding if they want to join in. They queue up and watch those in front of them and can also change their minds before they reach the front. Indoors, this adds a potential difficulty for those that do not know what to expect going into the experience and are perhaps hesitant from the start. Despite this added challenge and uncertainty, I enjoyed my time inside the temple of this 'cult-ivation project'.

This review would not be complete without mentioning Collectif Aïe Aïe Aïe's Ma Biche et Mon Lapin, a difficult to describe, wonderful to watch ode to the strange yet wonderful forces of love and attraction. As someone with an admittedly limited knowledge of puppetry, this performance totally changed my perception of what puppetry could be. Two brilliantly hilarious performances from Charlotte Blin and Julien Mellano bring to life a world 'where couples get together and split up in a ballet of manipulated objects.' I never would have thought that circling a napkin ring with a napkin could feel so sexually explicit, but the wonderful interplay of musical cues and perfectly choreographed performance draws you right into the world of these mundane objects and you truly personify them.

From now on I will be singing the praises of Manipulate to anyone that will listen. I engaged with work I would not usually have sought out and am glad to have done so. It is a carefully curated series of creative and original works, the perfect place to take a risk and go see something you might usually shy away from; more likely than not, you will be pleasantly surprised.

Young Critics at Manipulate 2020:

Twa Pirate Quines / credit: Fiona Oliver-Larkin

Sara García on Shadowbird, Twa Pirate Quines and Heartsore

There is only one customer left in the pub. An old man made out of rod welcomes the audience as they find their seats. Leaning on the bar, it seems that he has drunk more than what his tiny body can withstand. This is Shadowbird, and Mary and David Grieve are about to offer us a glimpse into the distinct nostalgia that is embedded in so much of Tom Waits' music.

With the glass still attached to his hand, the air-sailor reminds us of the day he had to say goodbye to someone who could have otherwise been the love of his life. The set is dreamy, built so the ground transforms into water and the water into a window to an outside world. The two performers use immersive lighting and soundscape to make the audience inhabit the past and present of their central character, all wrapped as a masterful puppetry performance.

In addition to the originality of the story, the rapport built between the two puppeteers over the course of the performance leaves one wishing that it could last for the rest of the evening. If you missed them this time round, make sure to keep an eye out for this talented family of puppeteers in the future.

Aside from Shadowbird, another highlight of the festival was the first show I attended, Twa Pirate Quines by Fiona Oliver-Larkin, a shadow puppetry performance about Anne Bonny and Mary Read, the two famous female pirates of the Golden Age. With no spoken word, Larkin retells this version of the story via the use of strong poetic imaginary. It takes time for these images to unfold, and the pace can slow down at points as a result. But overall, the performance immerses the audience into a mythical Caribbean love story.

Another solo performance, Island Home, by the Slovakian puppeteer Katarina Cakova, used storytelling, object theatre, puppets, pop-up and installation elements to tell an arrangement of short stories about leaving home (or having to leave it), and the quest to find one's place in the world. Despite the universality of this theme, the lack of emotion in Cakova's narration may induce the audience into a trance where Cakova's voice eventually fades away. The beauty of her puppets and the symbolic force of some images, like the sea guardians that collect abandoned bodies with their net, almost make up for the excessive use of minuscule objects. For a short-sighted person like me, having to squint my eyes became another reason to abandon the thread of her narration, however.

Heartsore, the only non-puppetry show I was able to catch that day, was devised by Petre Dobre during a 2019 residency as director trainee at the Macrobert Arts Centre. Through physical theatre and dance, Dobre and Irina Vartopeanu follow the highs and lows of a couple. Set on a beach, this story about lost love serves as a pretext for Dobre to show his great talent at physical theatre and dance. He is able to channel the winds even when the waves begin to drag his body into a sea of melancholy. We also believe the wall that encloses him as he attempts to leave the dreamy place that at some point ceases to be idyllic. The story could do with telling us more about how the love ended, instead of just thrusting us into the aftermath of the break-up, perhaps offering more of Vartopeanu's performative skills. In any case, Heartsore is vivid exploration of the feeling of desolation, realised in its physical form.

Young Critics at Manipulate 2020:

Remember / credit: Sarah Smart

Alison Frater on Remember

Nunah is a physical theatre company based in Dundee who make work that is tailored towards exploring specific themes or a certain space. Known for creating work which is thought-provoking and has emotional depth, I was lucky enough to attend their performance of Remember, which they showcased at the Manipulate Festival. The premise of Remember is how unreliable our memory can be and how confusing and anxious not being able to remember different things can make us feel.

From the beginning of this performance, I was completely immersed in the show and the atmosphere created by the performers, to the extent that I had goose bumps as soon as the first actor stepped onto stage. The dynamics of the movement were spectacular to watch and it was very difficult to focus on just one aspect as there was a slightly chaotic energy about the work. Most of the choreography stemmed from movements which could be associated with the feeling of being anxious or distressed, and the way these naturalistic gestures were used as stimuli to create more choreography was incredibly clever and most definitely added to the overall emotional journey of these characters. The audience was used during this show to great effect too. As soon as the first actor entered the space, she was asking us questions, immediately catching everyone's attention. The questions asked of the audience are ones that humans, around the world, every day are asked and choosing to ask these in this show made the actor accessible to the audience and made the content extremely relatable. As an audience member, all you wanted to do was help this woman so that she would not be as distressed, and this not only made you understand the character but you were also able to have your own emotional response.

Another factor that worked in this performance was the breath work. There was very little text in this piece so the breath work was an excellent substitute to text, as it was much more chilling to listen to and did well to convey how the characters were feeling. It also heightens the emotional depth of the movement and evokes a greater reaction from the audience because it makes the actor much more vulnerable, as they are solely relying on their breath to tell the story. This was a bold choice and one that definitely paid off as it also created an intimate connection between actors and audience.

In addition, the music used was powerful and complimented the action that was taking place on stage. Each of the songs used made me feel uneasy due to the volume and repetitiveness of the score. Again this component worked well in creating the atmosphere and world of the play and what the characters were experiencing.

Overall, this show was utterly chilling, visceral and unforgettable. I found the content relatable and the show as a whole was authentic. Nunah set out to make theatre about specific issues and I feel like they have truly succeeded with Remember, focusing on how unreliable memory can be.

Find out more at manipulatefestival.org.

Manipulate Festival

Puppet Animation Scotland collates a collection of world-class animation, puppetry and related performing arts of all styles and techniques from a range of international artists and companies. The 2020 event features late-night music events, café-cabarets, workshops and more.

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