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Manipulate

There’s something very dark at the heart of this year’s Manipulate
Visual Theatre Festival. Now in its fourth year, Puppet Animation
Scotland’s week-long showcase of hybrid forms involving puppetry, film
and animation intermingling with live performers features eleven
different events at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre which mine the more
immersive sides of the human psyche. The two most striking wares on
offer may take radically different approaches, but the worlds they
inhabit nevertheless remain striking enough to both captivate and
disturb.

At the start of the week, archaically inclined ensemble 1927 return
with the long awaited follow-up to their Herald Angel winning Edinburgh
Festival Fringe hit, Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which
blended animation and silent movie piano with a cut-glass parlour-room
presentation of a selection of fantastically gothic short stories. The
new piece is the equally extravagantly titled The Animals and Children
Took to the Streets, a full-length yarn set in a decaying tenement
block in a city slum that looks part Fritz Lang, part Bertolt Brecht in
its aesthetic.

Also returning to Scotland is French director/choreographer Giselle
Vienne, whose ongoing dramatic collaboration with ex-pat American
novelist and doom-core composer Peter Rehberg was last seen at
Glasgow’s Tramway with the large-scale piece, Kindertotenlieder. Where
that piece looked at the life and death fixations of the black-hooded
teens who soundtrack their lives with goth music until one of them
takes things too far, Jerk strips things back to a solo performance
that also looks at doomed youth. Where Kindertotenlieder integrated
showroom mannequins into the action, Jerk, which takes as its starting
point a trio of real life teenage serial killers made notorious in the
1970s, has solo performer Jonathan Capdevielle use deceptively cuddly
glove puppets to play out the atrocities.

“The guys the play is all about are very real people,” Cooper explains.
“They were one of the first known examples of serial killers in modern
times. They were certainly the first I ever knew, and I always wanted
to do something with it.”

Jerk’s scenario is derived from the story of Dean Corll, who, with the
aid of teenagers David Brooks and Wayne Henley, murdered more than
twenty boys in Texas. Cooper tells his version of the story through the
eyes of Brooks, frighteningly played by Jonathan Capdevielle as an
inmate of an institution who has taken up puppetry as a form of
therapy, and is now giving a kind of show-and-tell to the audience.

As the author of novels such as Safe, The Sluts and God Jnr, Cooper has
long looked at such extreme subjects. This was the appeal to Vienne,
who first worked with him in 2004 on a show called I Apologise.

“When people read stories about serial killers like this one in the
newspapers,” Vienne explains, “there’s a horror about it that makes
them not happy, but there is an appeal as well. I recognise that in
myself. I don’t think I have extreme tastes. Sure, these topics we’re
working with are on the edge, but I’m not making a horror film. In
fact, I’m actually afraid of horror films. But what I’m trying to do
with Jerk and my other collaborations with Dennis is to have an
interesting dialogue with our dark sides. I’m interested in what we’re
afraid of, and what is my relationship with strange sexual things, and
all these metaphysical things come up.

“In Jerk, the relationship between Patrick and the character is
ambiguous,” Vienne continues, “What’s happening is so extreme that at
times you get worried about Patrick. Onstage David Brooks is fading,
but you worry that Patrick might be fading as well. Sometimes there are
people in the audience who believe that Patrick really is David Brooks,
so the relationship to reality is written in so many ways.”

While 1927 similarly drew on real life events for The Animals and
Children Took to the Streets, their scenario grew more out of
observations of a socio-politico milieu on their travels than a
specific situation.

“We went to Hong Kong,” explains Suzanne Andrade, who set up 1927 with
animator Paul Barritt, “and there’s a place there called Chungking
Mansions, which is an amazing place where four thousand people live.
It’s really rundown, and everyone lives on top of each other. As soon
as you go in you’re attacked by about fifty people selling you things,
and is the cheapest place to live in Hong Kong, and is really hectic.
Then when we got back to London, and you can see these extremes of one
area being really wealthy that’s right next to somewhere really
impoverished, and there doesn’t seem to be any connection between the
two.

“I used to work with children in E17 (in London), and while lots of
them came from really loving backgrounds, there were others who you
knew were going to have a really hard time of it. So all of these
things fed into the show. Weirdly enough as well, just as the show was
about to come out, the student riots started in London. We hadn’t meant
it to be pertinent in that way, but suddenly it all felt very true.”

Truth is something Jerk too aspires to, albeit in a way that takes
liberties with the facts. Where in the play Wayne Henley is killed, in
real life, Henley is still alive and behind bars, while Brooks is not
known to have ever explored the world of puppeteering.

“It’s a fiction,” Cooper says of Jerk. “The whole set-up was so
bizarre, and when I wrote the story there was only one little book
about it that had been published, so I didn’t really know that much
about what actually went on. So I extrapolated from it and used what I
wanted to.”

While Cooper feels no sense of responsibility to the people he’s
fictionalised, he did once receive a letter from Henley by way of his
friend, film-maker John Waters.

“To amuse himself John visits prisons,” Cooper reveals, “and he sent a
copy of my book to Wayne Henley. I then got this letter from Wayne, who
said he thought my story was hilarious, which I thought was a pretty
strange thing to say, but I never replied. I had no interest in
becoming pen-pals.”

Beyond reality, both 1927 and Vienne’s next major adventures are in
opera and ballet. While Vienne is working towards a production of
Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring for 2013, 1927 look set to decamp to
Berlin to work on Mozart’s The Magic Flute. While tackling work that
already exists will be a new move for all parties, one can expect them
to put their unique creative stamps on it. Vienne especially has pretty
much a clean slate to work with in terms of engaging with Nijinsky’s
original choreography for the 1913 production.

“All the notes are missing,” she explains, “so we’re just quoting from
pictures. It’s about facing death, but it’s also about celebrating some
kind of ritual as well. There’s going to be a strong look to what we
do, but in terms of the original, you can’t stage something you can’t
see.”

For both companies, such ventures are daring leaps into big-scale works
that are some considerable way from their boutique roots. Of they’re
fazed, however, it doesn’t show. As Andrade puts it, “it’s just doing
what you do anyway and putting it in a bigger arena. It’s an
experiment, really. We have big ideas, but then present them in a small
scale way, so let’s see if up-scaling it works.”

The Animals and Children Took To The Streets, February 1st, 7.30pm;
Jerk, February 3rd, 9pm, both at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh as part of
the Manipulate Visual Theatre Festival, which runs February 1st-5th.
www.traverse.co.uk
www.manipulatefestival.org

The Herald, January 25th 2011

ends

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