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 Man Who Planted Trees – Scottish Storytelling Centre

Written by Jean Giono

After thirteen years and with over 1,700 performances under their belts, you would think that Puppet State Theatre – the company behind The Man Who Planted Trees – would pack up their acorns and have a bit of a rest. It’s a pleasure to say that the company are still performing this astoundingly delightful show, and are bringing theatre to people of all ages with a tale that is sadly more vital than ever.

In 2019 this piece is glaringly important. Not only because of its ecological standpoint, but also due to its nuanced themes of neighbourly respect, kindness and appreciation. Adapted from the short story by Jean Gionothe show follows Elzéard Bouffier, a shepherd who single-handedly begins to re-plant 10,000 trees. He does so without seeking praise or glory – it is only Jean (and Bouffier’s dog) who realise the tremendous feat the man undertakes.

It is remarkably rare to find a production which appeals to the masses without cheap tactics, relying simply on the power of its storytelling and the raw, emotional heart of its message. It’s spectacular that so much can be communicated here with through theatrical magic, exquisite world-building and cracking humour. 

With the same puppets in use for over a decade, cherished by puppeteers and audience alike, there’s a deep warmth to this multi-sensory and engaging production. The power and importance of The Man Who Planted Trees only increases with age. It is an exquisite balance of humour, emotion, heart, war, pain and beauty. This isn’t only something to catch during the Fringe – this is something to see anytime you can.

Review originally published for The Skinny: https://www.theskinny.co.uk/festivals/edinburgh-fringe/theatre/the-man-who-planted-trees

Strange Tales

Based on the stories by Pu Songling

Adapter: Ewan Macdonald

Written & Directed by Pauline Lockhart and Ben Harrison

Our nightmares may be home to Kelpies, Redcaps and Banshees but for a different culture, who grew with the stories of Chinese writer Pu Songling, who five centuries ago wrote over five-hundred tales of demons, beasts and spirits, this is the fuel of their midnight imaginations. Join us in expanding your horizons of folklore but be careful not to stray far from the path of twilight, or these Strange Tales may claim you before the morning light.

Tying a creative meta to the narrative, as these tales are told, we come to realise that the deeper we delve into the heart of fantasy, the less likely we are to escape, enveloped, seduced by these spun tales of fox spirits, ghoulish lovers and small creatures living in our gaze. Just eight of Pu Songling’s stories are premiered for the first time on a British stage here in Edinburgh, but will any of the audience be able to sleep this evening?

Spearheading this revival, Grid Iron Theatre Company are offering more than a mere re-telling, instead, a conjuring of Songling’s creations. The stage of the Traverse is raised off the ground to intimately thrust directly into the audience. Karen Tennant’s set design offers quite enough detail to transport us to the humble settings of a storytellers canvas. Torn cloth, laden with symbols, drape into the crowds below, where one can’t help but feel a chill in tonight’s performance, despite the warmth of our hosts.

And luckily, we have three spinners of tales to safely guide us, well, we hope. Co-writing the premise, from Ewan MacDonald’s translation, Pauline Lockhart is the Scottish core of Strange Tales, bringing a rich humour, which is the most fluid of the three, though Robin Khor Yong Kuan brings a roguish charm to the antics. Performances vary, With Lockhart’s young lad from Paisley seeking the talents of ancient masters from the East a standout role, as is Luna Dai’s take on the antagonistic fortune teller. It is though, a combination of sleight of hand, magic and some finger puppets which captivates the audiences. As Khor Yong Kuan’s ‘Big Sneeze’ takes us intently out of reality and into the moment.

With a cacophony of stories, ghouls, effects and characters – it was bound to cause a tripping hazard. There’s an ounce too much, which unbalances the performance and stifles what should be a spectacular finale. In a twist to the parable, Lockhart confronts the three spirts of Paper, Clay and Light, previously shunning the warnings of delving too deep into these tales. The spirit of paper, another of Fergus Dunnet’s live effects is a strong start, but it is video design from Bright Side Studios which spellbindingly ties together the arts of modern technology and ancient storytelling.

That said, even with the power of the Light spirit, and impressive fight choreography from Philip Ho, it feels excessive in the closing act, as Pauline tosses and uses physical prowess, rather than wit or word, to evade the spirits. It seems to be acting against the general lessons, where many of the evil spirits are outwitted, only resorting to physical violence when cornered. Instead, here it feels shoehorned in, that with all the grandeur of puppets, visuals and tone, there was no way to write their way out of the scenario causing abrupt conclusions.

At its height, Strange Tales is sumptuous stage sorcery which places storytelling above all else and echoes a profound admiration for culture, narrative and theatre. This is a quintessentially traditional show for the festive period, it just so happens to be a tradition many here are unfamiliar with. Fusing a Chinese and Malaysian Chinese heritage with a Caledonian tongue, Strange Tales is a welcome addition to the world of folklore, a triumph of bracing theatre.

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/strange-tales-traverse-theatre-edinburgh/

Photo Credit – Tommy Ga-Ken Wan