Manipulate Festival Part 2 – Summerhall

Shadowbird (★★★★)

Shadowbird starts as a quaint production but grows into something so much more. A fisherman, sculpted wonderfully by Mary and David Grieve, begins his story in the way all good stories are told… as he finishes off a pint. Soon, we’re thrown into a world of epic adventure and charming design. 

The frame through which performers convey their puppets’ motion begins to unfold as oceans, mountains and moons open up to illustrate the story of the fisherman in his youth. Now a young man, moving a heavy pod which serves both as home and transport, the fisherman takes refuge by the mountainside, awe-struck by the sea-life, the plants and one peculiar shadow creature which seems to emerge from a single blackbird.

Though it’s a story told primarily through puppetry, light has a tremendous impact on the effectiveness of the narrative. Shadowbird is inspired by Tom Waits’ song Fish and Bird, and its playfulness with shadow accentuates the songs’ subject of unavailable love, longing and melancholy. It’s a prime example of rod-puppetry and ability to convey an entire story, from birth to fruition without dialogue. 

Sketches (★★★★)

Flowing through the crowd, the trio of dancers at the heart of Sketches demonstrate the sublime craft of conceptual movement theatre.

A gathering of string musicians sway back and forth across the hall, never too far away from the dancers, providing an elegant backdrop befitting each of the movement pieces. Reacting to the musical arrangement around them, the performers deliver a tight, thoroughly thought-out series of movements, taking the audience on as much of a trip as the dancers themselves.  Movements to Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor are accompanied by original compositions and interjections from DJ Mariam Rezaei.

Sketches is executed with tremendous skill, but there are a couple of moments that feel ever-so-slightly slightly detached from the fluidity of the choreography. The decision to have dancers moving around and through the audience is immersive but has drawbacks – particularly for those less able to stand or wander for the full forty minutes.

Choreographer and dancer Katie Armstrong has created a beautiful whirlwind with Sketches. The emotion wrought on the dancers’ faces adds another layer to Sketches, and is something not always seen in movement pieces. The brief vignettes of choreographed movement – comprised of circling patterns, interlocking movements and personal moments between the dancers – are full of humour and intimacy. 

Canto X

Despite its position in Manipulate as a work-in-progress piece, Canto X exhibits a grand sense of purpose, haunting lyricism and a keen understanding of physical communication.

In part an examination of Dante’s relationship with his inner-self and physical form, the production echoes the connections between the three ‘selves’; our heart, our spirit and our ‘husk’, the physical form we inhabit. 

We begin as Dante descends through the circles of hell, struggling internally with the ideas of mortality,  religion and free will. Its a semi-battle between logic and belief, with the production’s over-arching vocals and minor costume effects chanelling this conflict.

Canto X is a tightly compact show, with tremendous promise. Some scenes designed to be more lingering and meditative are pushed back to back with other volatile episodes, with a slightly jarring effect. As a work-in-progress though, Canto X vastly exceeds expectations.

Manipulate Festival 2020 Part 1 – Summerhall

Transfigured (★★★★★)

Transfigured by Oceanallover begins with a cautionary note: involvement from the audience is key to the event. This involvement simultaneously fails to extend beyond mere pleasantries and idle chatter, and is crucial to the outcome of the show.

 An audience member is asked to pick a card, and when they do so, one of thirteen performers head a sequence relating to the chosen character. The unique segments that follow are usually centred around movement, with the occasional stand-out solo number for accomplished vocalists such as the Queen of Sorts.

Despite a repetitive structure, Transfigured never feels dull, as there is always an element of danger to proceedings. Oceanallover – one of Scotland’s leading producers of physical theatre – have produced a multi-layered, spontaneous piece that includes imposing physical movement, a wide variety of vocals and virtuosic live music. 

It has to be said that satisfaction lands with the eye before the ear, thanks the intricate and mesmerising costume design. Across the seventy-minute run time, it’s not difficult to find a small flourish or touch that has eluded from the outset.

Pick a card, any card, you won’t be disappointed. Transfigured is an explosive expression of physical movement, with the power to invoke a spectrum of emotions.

Island Home (★★) 

More than ever, harmony and acceptance are the goals for many seeking a home away from danger and hate. With Island Home, Katarini Cakova delivers a solo performance with multiple narrative threads, loosely tied together by the overarching theme of how to find one’s place in the world. Cakova’s piece is full of pop-up art, shadow play and object control – but in her desire to cover so many stories, Cakova waters down the overall effect. 

Attempting to transform everyday objects into pieces of a grander puzzle, Island Home fails to convey the sense of symbolism it desires. There’s a breakdown in the ability to craft an illusion; a toy car is a toy car, a snow globe is still a snow globe. Cakova employs shadow play ambitiously, but these objects are still too literal in their physical form and so cannot metamorphose into whatever Cakova tries to make them. 

Where puppetry is concerned, Island Home takes a more positive turn. Two of the piece’s many stories stand out. A brief tale of three fishermen who find themselves taking in a peculiar child from the shorelines showcases a spectacular dark and threatening design, with characters fashioned from rod puppets. The other is the production’s highlight – we witness a paper-craft journey as a young narrator describes traveling the seas in search of a better life. The waves gradually grow higher and more volatile, achieved through forced perspective and overlapping designs. 

Island Home strives to weave multiple narratives, all attempting to address themes of acceptance and finding one’s place in the world. But what should be a piece that connects all limits its message to only those who can follow its ambiguous and loosely tethered stories.

Lamp (★★★)

Lamp utilises the simplest of object manipulation to create humour, unbridled chaos, and even blushing erotic displays. You’ll have to remind yourself that you’re looking at a lampshade; it really shouldn’t be sexy.

Co-creators Jess Raine & Jemima Thewes of Swallow The Sea are used to performing within a caravan, so the enclosed space of the Summerhall basement works wonders for their production. Clad in black, this is the rare instance where you do fully engage with the puppetry of the object, not the performer. Even when incorporating their body part in humorous takes on escapology, on the female form and sexual discovery, Raine & Thewes manage to give life to a tattered, frilly ceiling lampshade.

A highlight includes the use of literal hand puppetry to create creatures squawking into the audience, the pair of lamps now serving a tall nest. However, there’s a sense that a longer piece would have seen these sorts of ideas grow tired and repetitive. At twenty minutes, Lamp is lively and inventive but by the end it already runs into limitations. 

Twa Pirate Quines (★★★★)

Fiona Oliver Larkin’s Twa Pirate Quines is a heart-warming, picturesque piece of theatre, with lashings of insightful design and minimalist puppetry. The story begings with a young woman fishing by the island coastline when a pirate queen, not too dissimilar from herself in appearance, sails into view. A relationship quickly grows between the two women, and the pair dance, sing and align themselves with one another to explore the seas and conquer foes.

The set is made up beautifully to resemble several coral pieces, sea matter and flotsam, and the production utilises soft lighting, shadow puppetry and cut outs to deliver the womens’ adventure in a poetic, gorgeously visual style. The ending of Twa Pirate Quines may seem bittersweet to some, but it’s a gorgeous finale befitting these characters. Small in scale, Twa Pirate Quines is a charming example of low-key storytelling.

Information regarding Manipulate Festival 2021 can be found at: https://www.manipulatefestival.org/

The Lion King – Edinburgh Playhouse

Music & Lyrics by Elton John & Tim Rice

Book by Roger Allers & Irene Mecchi

Direction, Costume Design & Mask/Puppetry Co-Design by Julia Taymor

1994, The Lion King, was by and large a tremendous gamble for The Walt Disney Company. It would go on to break records, particularly for animation, launch platinum soundtracks and define generations emotional state. An extravagance of stage enchantment there’s little to say which hasn’t been said before. If you’ve been lucky enough to visit the Pride Lands, the production is as compelling as ever, and if you’re a fresh cub to the Savannah sun – how we envy your ability to see this for the first time.

With the break of dawn, and those familiar notes courtesy of Thandazile Soni’s Rafiki, a sensory ripple of tingled necks erupts throughout The Edinburgh Playhouse. By the climax of The Circle of Life, Walt Disney’s The Lion King has made its mark, a literal stamp on musical theatre. The brilliance of Elton John & Tim Rice’s original score, with a deeper infusion of African tones and vocals, set against the hued orange dusk of the Savannah plains, is the playground of puppets who take inspiration from every cultural aspect of African, European and Asian design.

Born to be king, Simba is a young cub who can’t wait to claim his crown. His folly though lies in this blind-sighted ambition, naïve to the dangers of the Kingdom and those closer to home, Simba is usually under the gaze of Royal advisor Zazu, or his father Mufasa, king of the Pridelands. Envious, irredeemable and callous, Scar, Simba’s uncle, finds the opportunity to seize control of the pride and eliminate both his brother and his nephew.

How does one emulate a timeless narrative which captured to hearts of generations, crafting a stage version of something which is already a loose adaptation of a Shakespearean classic? The answer is that Allers and Mecchi’s book blends the sources closer together, while Julie Taymor’s phenomenal direction and design elevate the production into a unique visage, The Lion King maintains the 1994 films plot, characters and structure, with only a few additions. Its framework is less animated, for obvious reasons, but in place of this, it achieves a sense of realness, even with the vibrant hues of physical prop design, masks and puppetry. 

From the aesthetic to the audio and lighting, The Lion King is an extravagant parade of sensory thrill. Donald Holder’s lighting, casts a spectrum of emotion and tone, complimenting the piece flawlessly, ranging from the bold colours of I Just Can’t Wait To Be King, to the softer mutes of Soni’s interludes as Rafiki’s marvellous presence captivates us all. Award-winning, identifiable and reflecting both the life on the African plains, and the death which tragically can follow, Taymor & Michael Curry’s puppet design, from the mousiest to the tallest is nothing shy of perfection, with a variety of designs, including Japanese Bunraku puppets.

Scorching the imagination, The Lion King’s stirring search into the difficulties of loss, on such scale is as inspirational as ever. The entirety of Simba’s evolution, from innocence into, essentially, depression and his journey to acceptance and eventual forgiveness, not only from his pride but his own, is told entirely through the score, intensified by visual effects and Jean-Luc Guizonne’s powerful rendition of Mufasa. The realisation of his father’s words to return home, spoken from a stage enveloping mask, to the score of Under The Stars is a maudlin moment of tender beauty which showcases Jonathan Gill’s conduction of the orchestra, and Dashaun Young’s role as Adult Simba’s progression out of the darkness and the vast shadow cast by Scar.

A resident supporter of the bad boys, even we must accept the revulsion one expects with Scar, notorious as one of the few successful villains who “removes” his obstacles in pursuit of the crown. Silver-tongued yet so roguishly charismatic, Richard Hurst emulates the original depiction of the character but morphs into the physicality of Taymor’s costume design. Older, less agile, Taymor’s Scar is a planner, a tactician, but the sculpt of his headpiece, as remarkable as it may be, succeeds only with Hurst’s facial expression. Tip-toeing the line, Hurst’s performance leans on exaggeration, requiring to do so to remain sinister, without distancing the audience.

In a choice manoeuvre, though no less pleasant, his original stand-out number from the film, Be Prepared, is turned from a fast-paced, volatile number into a spoken song. Hurst’s position as a graduate of The Royal Academy comes, naturally, with control of his vocals, which is evident in his following number The Madness of King Scar, elevates Scar into a Shakespearean foe, reminiscent of Jeremy Irons iconic performance. Quintessentially Machiavellian, Hurst’s performance, heralding the dawning of a new age, is only successful with his denizens of the Elephant Graveyard.

Looking to Chow Down on what they can, Shenzi, Banzai & Ed, the slack-jawed, cackling trio of Hyena’s return but with an added musical number for their stage outing, performed by Rebecca Omogbehin, Simon Trinder & Alan McHale. As intimidating as the characters may be, helped with the hunched, looming presence they pervade, they serve as an example of The Lion King’s key strength is its side characters and humour. The Hyena’s, Timon & Pumba and most certainly Zazu quite often rob a few scenes away from our leads.

Matthew Forbes, frequently breaking the fourth wall to advertise Disney’s other properties, is a delight to watch prance, frolic and stress around the stage, fleeing after our Young Simba and Nala. Leaping to the other end of the spectrum, where Frobe’s comedic talents dominate, Jossylnn Hlenti’s Nala and Jochebel Ohene MacCarthy’s Sarabi propel the lionesses to the forefront. Hlenti’s attitude, her precise movement to Garth Fagan’s choreography commands a stage presence equal to that of Ohene Maccarthy’s stoic authority.

Particularly for the lionesses, Fagan’s rhythmic choreography is powerfully adept, traditional dance mingles with a performance element of movement for the puppets. From the heavy beats of the Hyena’s break dancing to the looser, community feel of One by One, with free-flowing birds and the big number He Lives In You, The Lion King is as much a production for the dance enthusiasts as it is the vocalists and the storytellers.

So, in the immortal words of Scar himself; ‘Be Prepared’. Be prepared for a pride’s golden age, a glorious production which celebrates life, redemption and rejects the wallowing doldrums of regret. A story for the ages, from Shakespeare to the Savannah, The Lion King from stage conception has been a pinnacle of musical theatre, of artistic construction and as the King returns to Edinburgh, there’s an understandable desire to recapture childhoods and introduce new fans to The Circle of Life.

The Lion King runs at The Edinburgh Playhouse until Sunday March 29th 2020. Tickets are available from: https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/disneys-the-lion-king/edinburgh-playhouse/

Photo Copyright – Walt Disney Company