If your notions of puppetry still go hand-in-glove with the child's play of Sooty and Sweep, Manipulate, the visual theatre festival that gets under way at the beginning of February, will surprise, even shock you into revising your ideas.
For the programme that Simon Hart, the festival's artistic director, has brought together for this sixth Manipulate season doesn't pull any punches in terms of the issues explored.
And it doesn't necessarily pull any strings either: Manipulate's remit extends to film, animation and live performance where unlikely or everyday objects come to life, often assuming an unexpected humanity. Moreover, this year the work will extend its reach beyond Edinburgh's Traverse. The city's Summerhall warren of spaces will host the opening event (curated by the radical Buzzcut team) but the festival's touring circuit has now expanded to include Fife's Lochgelly Centre, with Aberdeen's Lemon Tree, Glasgow's Arches and Norwich's Puppet Theatre all tapping into the innovative work that Hart , pictured below, has sourced from home and abroad.
It's hard to say which pleases him more: the highly sought-after international shows that he's been trying to snare for Manipulate almost since it started in 2008 or the steadily increasing involvement by a Scottish sector he's been nurturing with a series of workshops and masterclasses from the festival's inception. For sure, he's as pleased as Punch – but refrains from crowing "that's the way to do it"despite the visible success of Manipulate – that this season includes the first, full-length piece by Physical Theatre Scotland, a group of recent graduates and students from Adam Smith College's Diploma in Physical Theatre Practice course. "It's called After the Wave," says Hart. "It's inspired by images of tsunami victims huddled in cardboard box 'homes' and Maja Daniels's baleful pictures of Alzheimer's sufferers – which sounds very dark indeed. But the piece, which uses life-size puppets, mask work and live music, is also touched with laughter and a kind of joy. We've supported the development of After the Wave through our Snapshots programme – we've another showcase of works-in-progress by new and emerging Scottish artists this year, and more workshops by leading practitioners, because Manipulate isn't just about bringing in these visual theatre plums from around the world, it's about providing a platform for our own home-grown talent."
It's not just Scottish artists who are drawn to the possibilities of visual theatre. Audiences too, are increasingly keen to suspend disbelief and watch. So why does this kind of visual theatre over-ride rational perceptions and genuinely affect our imagination, and indeed our emotions ? "I think it's to do with the visceral power of visual imagery," says Hart. "Words can, and do move us. But the vivid intensity of a visual image, the way it has both an immediate and a lasting effect – the way we remember it, recall it – can go beyond words. We actually spend a lot of our time reading facial expressions and body language in our everyday lives. A lot of our information is communicated wordlessly, and that I think is why audiences respond so readily to performances that don't rely on words."
In To The End Of Love, a re-telling of the Bluebeard's Castle story, the horror unfolds through the emblematic use of clothes: Bluebeard himself is an expensive, well-tailored blue suit while the young bride comes to wonder why she's being dressed in the underpinnings of so many dead predecessors... But is there really a threat? or is it just her own fevered imagination conjuring doubts? "There's a very clever ambiguity, that leaves the audience free to make up their own minds," says Hart. "No-one says, in so many words, 'it's this' or 'it's that.' You're given all these visual 'clues' – and you get to decide what they mean to you. There's room for your imagination to play."
Elsewhere, that humble lo-tech medium, paper, becomes the stuff of fabulous illusion – if you missed Paper Cinema at Manipulate 2008, catch them this year as they set off on an epic journey in Odyssey. But perhaps Hart's trump card is Neville Tranter's puppet-play Schicklgruber... alias Adolf Hitler, a darkly grotesque satire that Hart reckons is more revealing than a flesh-and-blood production would be. "Really good actors can give you a lookalike, soundalike Hitler," he says. "But Neviile's puppet Hitler is like a brilliant political caricature. It has these bulging, mesmeric eyes, these character traits made visible, so that you see the inner ego, the innate evil, all made to look absurd and yet malign – and actually, with a puppet, I think you're free to hate what is being represented, and to laugh and scorn it, in ways that don't feel quite right if it's a well-known actor in the role. It's just a subtle shift of emphasis, but I think it's a key part of why this piece – and Manipulate as a whole – reaches out to adult audiences. As children, we don't have a problem playing with inanimate objects as if they were alive. Or deciding that one thing will 'be' something, or some-one else. As adults, we tend to lose contact with that side of ourselves all too easily. Manipulate is all about re-entering that mindset, and being amazed and delighted by what we find in it, and in ourselves."
Manipulate 2013 takes place at venues across Scotland and England from 2 - 16 February. www.manipulatefestival.org