Mary Brennan

A MAN is making himself a cup of tea. Not, you might think, the stuff of riveting drama or roguish comedy. But when the tea-making is in the hands of Compagnie Sacékripa, from France, the whole process of getting that everyday brew just right becomes a heightened ritual – one where, without resorting to words, every finicky detail says something about the patterns of behaviour we acquire but probably pay very little attention to any more.

The piece is called Vu, and it’s part of Manipulate 2019 which opens this weekend in Edinburgh and runs, across various venues and in other cities, until February 12. For Simon Hart, the festival’s artistic director, Vu is almost like an oasis in our busy-busy, techno-driven lives. “It’s a show where you have to uncouple yourself from whatever kind of hectic day you’ve had, and just sit back, and relax into the rhythms of what Etienne (Manceau) is doing on stage. And he very definitely goes at his own carefully considered pace!”

Hart laughs, remembering how Manceau plays about with different elements of, for instance, adding to sugar to his tea. “The company originally worked in street theatre,” he says, “and when they started making work for theatre spaces, all the clowning and juggling skills came indoors with them. You see that in Vu, where the business of flicking a sugar lump into the cup has to be done in a certain, tricksy way that’s very funny – but which can equally go off the rails, and when that happens, it becomes a window into the character’s obsessive way of life.

"Afterwards, you do think about your own habits – do you have specific ways of doing things that seem to bring order to your life? For such a delicate, intimate, charming – and genuinely funny – solo, I think it has some interesting insights.”

Elsewhere, bodies and objects come together in a host of intriguing ways throughout a Manipulate programme that also embraces a series of workshops and training opportunities, a full day of short films and animations, and various platforms for new and emerging artists – all alongside over a dozen productions featuring both home-grown and international artists in performances where boundaries between physical theatre, visual theatre and dance are dissolved and puppetry frequently comes brilliantly into play. For Hart, this kind of slippage between genres and disciplines is something that Manipulate is happy to accommodate and encourage – enter a new strand called Rising Voices.

“We already know,” he says, “that a whole new tranche of practitioners, many of them living and working here in Scotland, want to explore working with objects or involving puppetry or animation in their performances. We’ve been supporting many of them in their early initiatives with our Snapshots and Testroom series but now we’re taking that support to another level with Rising Voices, which is – if you like – a kind of mid-point stage in the development process.

"None of the four works in this strand is a final, finished production, but we feel it’s important – and really helpful to the artists and companies showing work – if what they’re doing is seen by an audience. Apart from anything else, it introduces the artists to the whole discipline of putting something on stage. When it’s just you, in a studio, there’s usually not much in the way of technical support or resources. If you’re showing work in Traverse 1 or 2 – you really need a lighting plot, and that’s where we come in. With a piece like Transmogrophiles, by Hopeless Monster, where all the action and illusions, are done literally by their hands, you could simply demolish all their innovation and craft with unsympathetic lighting. Rising Voices is where they – and the others we’ve selected – can try out ideas, decide what it is they want to say, and then use our technical support to see how it comes together on stage.”

And when all the enthusiastic newbies are not actually performing, then Hart hopes they’ll take every opportunity to watch the companies he’s signed up for his 2019 showcase. Companies such as Livsmedlet Theatre (Finland) who will be showing their internationally acclaimed production, Invisible Lands, not only at the Traverse but at Paisley Arts Centre and Perth Theatre. This remarkable two-hander – devised and performed by Sandrina Lindgren and Ishmael Falke – is pungently apposite to the times we live in, focussing as it does on the plight of refugees as they travel in search of safe havens.

There is more than a hint of autobiographical experiences in the concept behind Invisible Lands but you don’t need any background information to grasp what is intended here: just watch... Watch as tiny plastic figures seek refuge in the curves of the near-naked human bodies on stage – perhaps snuggled into an ear, or trying to hide in a palm that can easily open out and leave them exposed. Washes of colour translate limbs and torsos into deserts, seas and mountain ranges – all obstacles for the migrants to overcome, or perhaps be overcome by.

Hart, who has now seen Invisible Lands three times, describes it as a truly ground-breaking piece of work. “It’s incredibly clever, yes – having the human body become a landscape, with these tiny little figures moving over it – but it comes together in a hugely dramatic narrative that speaks, powerfully, of an issue that is currently troubling, and dividing, societies across Europe.

"It really takes us on a journey, asks questions and confronts prejudices – purely by using human bodies and plastic figures. It’s an exceptional piece of work that brings together choreography, physicality, video and puppetry in a very visionary, innovative way.”

Something of the same spirit of resourceful invention powers through the quirky version of Sleeping Beauty by Compagnie Akselere (France). Illness prevented the company’s artistic director, Colette Garrigan, from bringing her solo – and idiosyncratically Liverpudlian – take on the fairy-tale to last year’s Manipulate but Simon Hart decided this bravura instance of puppetry-noir was not to be missed, so Garrigan, now recovered, is not only playing the Traverse, she’s at Perth Theatre as well.

Back in 2008, during that year’s Edinburgh Fringe, we gave a Herald Angel Award to Al Seed for his gloriously grotesque embodiment of The Fooligan. Seed has now revisited his garrulous, somewhat bulbous creation, and will revive him in a new musical cabaret act called The Fooligan and The Bridges of Madness.

Another Herald ‘thumbs up’ came with our music critic, Keith Bruce’s five star review of Karl Jay-Lewin’s Extremely Pedestrian Chorales which was performed last September as part of the Findhorn Bay Festival. Manipulate audiences will, however, be treated to a somewhat enhanced version of Jay-Lewin’s choreography to Bach’s music. “We were having a chat about it,” says Hart, “and I just said ‘you should do this with a choir’. And Karl replied ‘that would be great...’ but,very considerately, he didn’t demand one. So what has now happened is that I’ve arranged for myself and seven other singers to perform the Bach Chorales, live on-stage, to accompany Karl’s choreography. And I’m delighted we can do this, because there’s so much about Karl’s work that – like Manipulate itself – blurs and crosses boundaries between the visual and the physical, the traditional and the future-forward.”

It’s really just Hart’s way of making a song and dance about work that invites us to stop and stare, maybe come away with a new way of looking at the everyday world we live in - and possibly pay attention to what we’re up to next time we put the kettle on.

Manipulate 2019 runs from Sat 2-Tues 12 February. Full details –