Manipulate Festival

After Chekhov

The Studio, Edinburgh

Five stars

Island Home

Summerhall, Edinburgh

Four stars


The annual, week-long Manipulate festival (which ended in Edinburgh yesterday) has become an indispensable part of the country’s theatre ecology. Indeed, beyond the Edinburgh festivals in August, it is Scotland’s most important showcase of international visual theatre, puppetry and animation.

The beautiful, wordless piece After Chekhov is a fine example of why the programme (which is produced by Puppet Animation Scotland) is a proverbial good deed in a naughty world. This 65-minute work is a gorgeously impressionistic, almost ethereal meditation on the titular siblings of Anton Chekhov’s famous play Three Sisters.

A delightful, intriguing and compelling work of theatrical art, the piece all but dispenses with narrative. Dramas such as this befuddle the traditional British conception of theatre as something which is defined by language, story, plot and unambiguous meaning.

Franco-Russian company Samoloet stand in a different tradition, one in which theatre can be as abstract and evocative as a string quartet by Anton Webern or a painting by Kazimir Malevich. So it is that we encounter the sisters, each a mirror of the other, shifting between seasons, moving through childhood into youth, in a simple, enchanting approximation of the petit-bourgeois, rural Russia in which they were raised.

Carefully considered, minimal set design combines with subtle lighting, shade and shadow to evoke a shared life of spiritual and emotional discovery. Through physical performance, puppetry and object theatre, the three performers draw us ever closer into the almost hermetically sealed world of their characters.

The use of music and sound is equally, and wonderfully, atmospheric. At the outset of the play we hear a military band departing, leaving behind them a world of classical piano music and Russian folk tunes. The indeterminate noise of a single, unknown person, busy doing who-knows-what, gives way to the howling of dogs and the cooing of doves.

When the sisters are not represented by the performers, they are manifested by little puppets or dolls. As autumn turns to winter, tiny Christmas trees and associated paraphernalia of the Yuletide season emerge, in miniature, from inside leather suitcases.

When the sisters peer inquisitively from their house into the pastoral wonderland in which they live, they do so through elegantly wrought metal windows that will, in a later scene, fold, endearingly, into little beds. There are many such moments of ingenuity.

A photo album is opened and memories tumble out of it. Soon, photos are being arranged on the floor, fitting cleverly into the rectangular shadows that are cast through the spaces in the album (which itself will soon become a bleak, grand dacha with many windows).

After Chekhov is an exquisite, emotive, sometimes surprisingly humorous, and timeless work of theatre. As our culture is increasingly saturated by the digitised and virtualised, there is something reassuringly human about a work of live drama that is so defiantly, and paradoxically, spiritual and material.

There is a strong spiritual, and, indeed, abstract dimension in Island Home, a 40-minute series of narrative vignettes by the Slovakian theatremaker Katarini Cakova, who is known as Katanari. Figures appear on walls, illuminated from little torches; a townscape pops up from the pages of a book; the woman who is the subject a simple, symbolic story is represented by a puppet comprised only of a head and arms.

A succession of tiny, diverse objects, puppets of various kinds and sizes, masks and handmade props appear as Katanari speaks her series of very short stories about spiritual and physical journeys. These range from the tale of a young woman who doesn’t want to travel (her journey being within herself) to a simple evocation of the lives of the many thousands (refugees from war, persecution, climate chaos and poverty) who take to the oceans in search of sanctuary.

Deliberately slow burning and episodic, the piece moves from moments of darkness to little, table top scenes, often illuminated by a small, adjustable reading light. The texts themselves, which are like prose poems, are similarly intermittent.

In truth, in the English language, at least, Katanari’s speech is somewhat stilted and lacking in expressiveness. One can’t help but wish that her inventive, artisanal theatre making was joined to a linguistic proficiency that was, if not necessarily akin to that of an actor, then, at least, more lyrical.

The Manipulate festival may be over, but one of its headline shows, Fault Lines by English company Two Destination Language, continues touring until next Saturday (including performances in Selkirk and St Andrews). Set on a fashion catwalk, featuring five female characters, the show allows you to choose your own soundtrack (courtesy of a smartphone app and a pair of headphones). A fashion show unlike any other, it promises to combine reality TV show America’s Next Top Model with the work of the great cultural theorist Susan Sontag.

Fault Lines tours until February 15. For details, visit: