Manipulate festival review – visual theatre experiments on a different stage | Theatre

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If there’s one festival equipped to adapt to the era of online viewing it’s Manipulate. The Edinburgh-based event is dedicated to visual theatre, a catch-all category that incorporates everything from mime to animation. In previous years, I’ve seen Dadaist dance, improvised children’s storytelling and turntable cartoons.

There’s nothing like seeing all this in the same room as the performer, but at least lockdown has given those performers a chance to extend their visual thinking. On the strength of this year’s opening weekend, the work remains rooted in theatre, but shows tantalising signs of artists exploring the possibilities of the screen.

Such signs are tentative but no less intriguing for it. Take the Snapshots strand, a series of works in progress that help create that unpredictable festival spirit. Once Tashi Gore would have told the true story of a relative’s escape from wartorn Paris as a piece of first-person theatre, perhaps the kind of thing she’s done with Glas(s) Performance and the late lamented Junction 25 youth theatre. Now, her collaboration with Ross MacKay comes to the fore in a toe-in-the-water version of The Yellow Canary, in which MacKay’s animations carry the weight of the story, scripted by Will Gore, while she chats to us like any other Zoom conversation.

Further along the road to completion, Tank is grounded in the studio-theatre performance of Zoë Bullock, who plays a lonely woman tending to her pet fish. Created with director Alice Langley, the show takes on an extra dimension as the screen divides – and divides again – into subtly different images that suggest anything from repeated routines to the fracturing of the woman’s mind.

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The Lonely Sailor Weather Report.
Fusion … The Lonely Sailor Weather Report.

Artists are also feeling their way into the new normal in the main part of the programme, the first under artistic director Dawn Taylor. Some things adapt more readily than others. Ariel Doron’s Unboxed, for example, began life as Boxed, a one-man show that riffed on the comic possibilities of a shoebox. Here, he draws in close to the camera for a playful exploration of his new delivery: a box containing a human hand. In a light and whimsical performance, Doron makes his own limb inanimate then reanimates it as if were an alien object.

From South Africa, The Lonely Weather Sailor Report is short and insubstantial, but a fascinating fusion nonetheless of traditional puppetry, courtesy of Craig Leo and the Ukwanda puppet and designs art collective, and the scratchy graphics of Meghan Judge. The figure of a drifting sailor would be at home in a regular puppet performance, but the landscape he inhabits, half-familiar monochrome images cutting through the static, is entirely of the digital world.

Ballad of the Crone, my favourite from the opening weekend, is a fascinating mix of camera trickery with the seemingly live. The Glasgow-based Peruvian performer Leonor Estrada Francke calls it a “psycho-magical documentary,” which gives some indication of its fusion of the straight and the surreal.

We find her looking larger than life in a kitchen that’s all distressed walls and rural simplicity. The food she’s preparing – “the kind of recipe you don’t write down” – is her way of connecting to the women she is isolated from. Some ideas work better than others, but the more Francke pushes the form with superimposed back projections, stop-motion animation and set-spinning shifts in perspective, the more surreal her everyday world becomes – and the more she enters an imaginative dreamscape of disturbing fairytale archetypes.

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