Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Manipulate Visual Theatre Festival: Performance. Strings. Death. Despair. Puppets

In his dialogue On The Marionette Theatre, German romantic philosopher Heinrich von Kleist commented that the puppet represented the potential of the human, once they pushed through the limitations of consciousness and freewill towards a state of grace. Kleist, like Plato, may have been ironic, as the puppet is more commonly seen as victim: the ballet Petrushka makes this point vividly, with a hero mercilessly punished merely for helplessly falling for a beautiful dancer. The true freedom within puppetry is perhaps in the hands of the puppeteer, who can manipulate his actors in ways beyond the fantasy of the most totalitarian director, or politician.

Manipulate elegantly describes itself as "innovative theatre arts for consenting adults," implying that their annual jamboree of puppetry, film and cross-platform drama leads straight into this particularly dark metaphor for determinism. The presence of Giselle Vienne, last seen in Scotland cheering up Tramway with a slow motion meditation on teenage suicide and drone metal, alongside Kefar Nahum, a Belgian story of Creation gone wrong, suggests that puppetry is a natural medium for bleak, aggressive theatre.

Although the festival has it roots in puppetry, Manipulate features film and performance that defies easy categorisation. The film selection emphasises the easy connection between video animation and live puppetry: the shadow puppets of the East could be seen as the earliest example of cinematic technique, using light to cast an image upon a screen, while stop motion animation clearly comes from puppetry itself.

Yet many of the live performances push at the boundaries of what can be regarded as puppetry. Mossoux Bonté, the company behind Kefar Nahum strive to integrate dance and theatre while grappling with the implicit gender relationships between their twin directors, Nicole Mossoux and Patrick Bonté. Rather than being puppeteers by vocation, like Scotland's Tortoise in a Nutshell, Mossoux Bonté come to the form to further their own performance philosophy.

If the bonds to a specific medium have been loosened, Manipulate is held together by certain themes. The sense of control, or lack of control, is easily invoked – Vienne's Jerk uses glove puppets in an examination of a serial killer, while 1927 evoke an oppressive, brooding city through the use of film.

Both the short film selection and French compilation movie Fear(s) of the Dark investigate the horror lurking beneath the surface of apparently mundane relationships: Fear(s) includes a contribution from underground comic star Charles Burns, another master of black and white horror illustration.

As an object, the puppet easily lends itself to hybrid creations: metamorphoses and protean creatures litter the programme, whether it is Mossoux Bonté's alarming spider deity or Matthew Robins' half boy-half fly battling to live a normal life (part of the Snapshots cabaret event). The elegance that Robins brings to his storytelling, accompanied by live folk music and told languidly, supports von Kleist's assertion that the puppet is capable of a fluidity and grace precisely because it is not troubled by human self-consciousness.

The brilliance of Kleist's essay, perched gingerly between notions of freewill as positive and the problems caused by having consciousness – he did go on to kill himself – is reflected in the cunning programming of Manipulate. It is the idea of puppetry that serves as the festival's starting point, rather than any rigid adherence to a particular medium, and from this blossoms a diverse, sometimes enchanting, sometimes troubling programme. If theatre's function is to stimulate discussion, or challenge audiences to look beyond their own assumptions, Manipulate challenges the meaning of its own art form and presents artists who are willing to poke around in the darker zones of human experience.