Manipulate festival review – dazzlingly inventive and extravagantly bizarre

Summerhall, Edinburgh
Annual festival of visual theatre delivers a busy mix of puppetry, silent comedy, modern dance and the hard to define

When you’re used to performing to four people, an audience of 20 must feel like Shea stadium. That’s the case for the Swallow the Sea company, which – for one day only – has broken out of its regular caravan theatre to play the Summerhall basement. At the end of the two 20-minute shows, Journey and Lamp, the performers blink out at the assembled hordes, overwhelmed by the numbers. They needn’t worry; it’ll be a while before anyone accuses them of selling out.

They’re here as part of Manipulate, the annual festival of visual theatre, which, having made the move across town from the Traverse, has exploited the rough-and-ready spaces of Summerhall to usher in a broader range of work, from the scratch to the accomplished. The opening Rising Voices programme on Saturday afternoon gave way to the evening’s heavy hitters to create a busy mix of object theatre, silent comedy, modern dance and the hard to define.

Swallow the Sea’s shows take delicate steps into the imagination. Performed by Jemima Thewes, Journey is a shadow-puppet fable about a girl whisked into some treacherous netherworld. It’s a simple tale made special by the echoing Swahili love song Thewes sings unaccompanied. Lamp is also enhanced by otherworldly vocals, this time sung by Thewes and Jess Raine, in a witty riff on the visual potential of two lampshades. They create everything from visions of architectural elegance to squawking birds, discovering the erotic potential of lampshade fringes en route.

Also fun is Blackout by Connor Bryson and Craig McCulloch, recent graduates in British Sign Language performance, who apply the double-takes of a silent movie to a dark comedy of corpse disposal. There’s room to develop their double act and work in a few more gags, but it’s full of potential.

By some distance, the best show of the day is Ersatz by Collectif Aïe Aïe Aïe. Performed by Julien Mellano, it is a dazzlingly inventive exploration of the meeting point between man and machine. With a microphone sensitive enough to respond to the blink of an eye or the raising of an eyebrow, Mellano sits at a luminous desk creating a pulsating soundtrack – and waves of laughter – just by twitching his face.

 Punk street theatre … Transfigured by Oceanallover. Photograph: Gareth Easton

For all the wit, there are darker forces at play. This is a man stepping from an arts-and-crafts past into a digital future. His cardboard laptop lights up magically, controlled by a brain-like mouse. After a few deft cuts with a scalpel, he builds his own 3D headset to enjoy virtual-reality wildlife encounters. He is not just in thrall to technology but subsumed by it.

Demonstrating the festival’s fluid genre boundaries, Katie Armstrong’s Sketches is a spirited promenade dance performance that fuses the chamber music of Bach with the electro beats of DJ Mariam Rezaei to accompany a set of closely synchronised solos and duets.

Inclusiveness isn’t always a good thing, however: Transfigured by Oceanallover is an excruciating piece of punk street theatre in which a pack of human playing cards shuffle through an endless parade of meaningless poetry and song, as if brashness and extravagant medieval costumes alone could sustain a purposeful performance. It’s like being trapped with the extras from an Adam and the Ants video – one where they blew the budget before they could make any sense of the story – made worse by the thought of the effort that’s gone into such an unrewarding show.

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