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/

Preview: Dead Good – The Studio

Dead Good is set to open in Edinburgh on February 13th at The Studio, Festival Theatre. Playing for two nights at 19.30pm before touring further. Tickets can be found at:https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/dead-good

Abstracts and quotations taken from syndicated interview by Diane Parkes

Death is just around the corner, so why not go in style? Or at the very least, throw a few punches first. Despite the inevitability, we never discuss death – who can blame us? Vamos Theatre, however, envisions Dead Good as an accessible way of prying open the door to open discussion.

We start our story at the end of theirs; told that they are dying, Bob and Bernard embark on one last grand adventure, living every ounce of time they have left to the fullest. The two men come to realise the values of life, love and wealth friendship can offer. Marrying tragedy with the mask of comedy, writer & artistic director Rachael Savage wants: “to demystify death and take the fear out of it” while incorporating a thirst for life and appreciation of humour. 

There is one thing our attitudes towards mortality can be truly harvested for – laughs. It’s a fact that artistic producers are capable of finding the fun in funeral, Savage seeking to entertain as much as she wishes to leave audiences with discussion as well as memories;

“I think people expect to go away from one of our shows having laughed and cried and with something to think about” 

In collaboration with palliative care patients and specialists, Dead Good continues Vamos Theatre’s dedication to creating theatre encompassing under-represented groups, Savage stating:

I give people a voice who often don’t have one, so our shows have to be about things that I am passionate about and that I want to make people think differently about.

As part of their research, for 18 months, Vamos Theatre gained first-hand experiences and opinions on the subject of mortality, and the attitudes surrounding this to capture authenticity. Further, the buzz and determination behind the production secure an understanding that those behind Dead Good have created the piece with solid intentions.

Due to the production’s nature of mask use, the communication method of the show welcomes anyone, being fully accessible to deaf audiences without a signer.

Aron De Casmaker, a Canadian clown performer who honed his skills with Cirque du Soleil plays Bob. Ringing the delicate matter of death to the nation, and is certainly one to catch for its two-night stay in Edinburgh. De Casmaker reinforcing his interest and passion for the project;

I’m really excited about this project. The idea of finding the lightness in dark material really attracts me to the theatre and in this show we are hitting a very realistic view of death head-on and then finding the joy and the lightness that comes from that

Set to deliver on tears of laughter, and a few shed out of inspiration, Dead Good has received positive coverage for its tackling of a hushed subject, with Tammy Gooding of BBC Hereford & Worchester awarding the production five stars, advising audiences to bring tissues.

Dead Good opens at The Festival Theatre – The Studio on February 13th at 19.30pm. Tickets are available from: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/dead-good

Full touring dates can be found at Vamos Theatre at: https://www.vamostheatre.co.uk/shows/show/dead-good#diary