Festival that comes with and without strings attached

Manipulate Festival at Norwich Puppet Theatre. Mr Carmen by Theatre AKHE. Photo: Vladimir Telegin.

Manipulate Festival at Norwich Puppet Theatre. Mr Carmen by Theatre AKHE. Photo: Vladimir Telegin. - Credit: Vladimir Telegin

A festival involving puppets — something for the kids then? Think again, Manipulate puts an adult spin on an art form traditionally aimed at children, bringing premieres and some of the world's best visual theatre artists to Norwich. SIMON PARKIN reports.

Manipulate Festival at Norwich Puppet Theatre. BUTTERFLYBY RAMESH MEYYAPPAN'S BUTTERFLY.Credit: Ross

Manipulate Festival at Norwich Puppet Theatre. BUTTERFLYBY RAMESH MEYYAPPAN'S BUTTERFLY.Credit: Ross Gilmore. - Credit: Ross Giilmore

Norwich Puppet Theatre is once again about to host an international festival featuring puppetry and animation — however before you rush out to book tickets to take the kids, you may want to take a second look.

Productions include a wildly absurd Russian show in which a man meets his alter ego, which include nudity, a grief-stricken interpretation of Madame Butterfly and night featuring the macabre animated films.

It's a far cry from Thumbelina and Three Little Pigs then — but it aims to go a long way towards proving that puppetry is not just child's play.

The fourth Manipulate Visual Theatre Festival aims to build on the success of previous events with a programme of world class visual theatre, innovative puppetry and animation, which includes work by both acclaimed artists from around the world to local art students.

Manipulate Festival at Norwich Puppet Theatre. Kwaidan by Rouge28 Theatre. Photo: Monika Kita

Manipulate Festival at Norwich Puppet Theatre. Kwaidan by Rouge28 Theatre. Photo: Monika Kita - Credit: Monika Kita

The five-day event, from January 31-February 7, which sees the theatre joining forces with Puppet Animation Scotland and the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, will include a packed programme that also features a gala awards evening and feature films and animated shorts.

If the previous three events are any guide it will pay to leave any preconceptions at the door and expect beauty, the surreal and the unexpected.

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Joy Haynes, director of the theatre, said this year's programme includes lots of variety with something for everyone, and she especially urged people yet to visit the theatre to come along, try something new, and be inspired by puppetry.

'It should be a really exciting week of cutting edge, world-class theatre and film. We are keen to engage with adult audiences to show that puppet theatre has a lot to offer people of all ages. This is a festival for adults and the shows can be quite dark and exciting and explore some really interesting areas of the human existence.

'Discover new territories full of monstrous transformation and wordless eloquence that will unravel the deepest of human emotional experience — come and be prepared to laugh, cry and abandon disbelief.'

As ever, 2015's programme is a sumptuous mix of visual, puppet theatre and animation by ground-breaking international companies.

The festival programme features companies from as far afield as Russia, Austria, Belgium and the US, as well as across the UK, as well as featuring styles of puppetry and visual art from places like Japan.

The programme of events is as diverse as it is thought-provoking and creates a discourse regarding the future of puppetry and animation in the digital age.

Joy Haynes said: 'The evidence is that we in the UK have grown up to the fact that the medium can deliver work of the utmost sophistication and subtly, which is quite simply at the cutting edge of theatrical and visual invention today.

'Manipulate is a chance to discover new territories full of monstrous transformation and wordless eloquence that will unravel the deepest of human emotional experience.'

Manipulate kicks off with That's It, a show by Belgian company Sandman which asks: where does dreaming end and reality begin?

Rouge28 Theatre will present Kwaidan, a work-in-progress inspired by Japanese ghost stories and horror movies, while Animated Nightmares will see BAFTA-nominated animator Robert Morgan present a selection of films.

As with previous years, the festival's film programme includes a gala night (February 5, 7.30pm, £16, £14 cons) with the fabulously glamorous Clementine The Living Fashion Doll presenting the 'Golden Clemtine' awards with a programme of short films.

Clementine will be combining her filmed reportage and dazzling live stage numbers with powerful and challenging animated shorts from Ülo Pikkov, Thomas Hicks, Neil Kempsell, Claire Lamond, Robert Morgan, Will Anderson and Ainslie Henderson.

There will also be a scratch performance of Mirth & Misery's Death Puppet Klezma Jam (February 6, 6.30pm, £5) featuring skeletal rhythms, rotten dances and bone jangling beats. The London puppet company, renowned for creating mad marionette shows, invite us to enter their world of putrified puppetry and witness their manipulation of the damned. Combining string and table-top puppetry with the Eastern European music of four-piece band Benny and the Cheesegrinder . Each character has a song and each song tells a story.

As well as performances and screenings, the festival will also include two already sold-out master classes aiming to encourage future generations of theatre makers, writer and actors to explore the possibilities of puppetry as a medium.

Belgian artist Agnès Limbos, who founded Compagnie Gare Centrale in 1984 and has created original performances based on Object Theatre which have been shown in over 25 countries, will be passing on expert advice on the world of the actor-manipulator.

Fabrizio Montecchi and Teatro Gioco Vita, who over the past 30 years have explored the medium of light and shadows in a series of award-winning productions, will be offering an opportunity to explore the techniques and languages of contemporary shadow theatre.

But it is not all aimed at adults. Children do get a look in this year with a special Little Tots Puppet Making event (February 4, 1pm, £10) aimed at toddlers who will be able to make their own new puppet under the guidance of the theatre's expert workshop team, which they can take home to continue the fun.

That's It

January 31, 7.30pm, £16 (£14 cons)

Dutch artist Sabine Molenaar, who founded Belgium-based company Sandman in 2012, gives a UK preimere to her first solo work after sold out and award-winning performances in Europe. This offbeat piece inspired by dreams is a refreshingly light show-going experience with no decrypting of deep and powerful themes required. Simply open your eyes and enjoy the strange world Molenaar brings to life. With each morphing movement the creature seduces us, the voyeurs, bringing us face to face with one great fear - that nothing is what it seems. Spiralling through the discomfort of non-control both creature and we face but one burning question: where does a dream end and hard reality begin?

Ages 14+

Kwaidan

February 2, 7.30pm, £9 (£7.50 cons)

A cinematic and atmospheric work-in-progress piece developed by Rouge28 Theatre, right, in collaboration with Norwich Puppet Theatre and Horse+Bamboo Theatre that is inspired by Japanese ghost stories and horror movies. It combines life-sized puppets, acting and video projections and tells the story of Haru, a young woman who comes back to her abandoned family house after many years of absence. Strange events happen as the house seems to be inhabited by spirits and ghosts from the past. As the action unfolds, the memory of a terrible event resurfaces.

Ages 12+

Animated Nightmares

February 3, 7.30pm, £8

Leading BAFTA nominated animator Robert Morgan presents and talks about a programme of his films, together with a selection of international animation which has inspired and excited him. He will be sharing his strikingly singular and macabre vision of things that go much more than just bump in the night. As well as his own award-winning works Bobby Yeah, The Cat With Hands, The Separation and D For Deloused, he has also chosen a selection of international short films including Russian film Hen, His Wife, about a married man notices that his wife is, in fact, a hen; Czech film Meat Love; Nightmares #1_Unicorn, a fragmentary nightmare involving unicorns; and British director Dominic Hailstone's The Eel, a horror film about an Eel who gets fed up of being in his tank.

Ages 14+

Mr Carmen

February 4, 7.30pm, £16 (£14 cons)

Founded in 1989, the Russian performance group Akhe grew out of the vibrant and wildly independent underground art scene in Moscow and St Petersburg. Quickly becoming a cult icon in Russia, the company started to tour internationally, rapidly gaining a reputation as celebrated masters of the avant-garde, known to push theatre to its very limits. In this piece an unlucky in love hero meets his alter ego in a place out of time. A desperate performance duel begins where theatrical truth and everyday reality collide head-on. As two larger than life characters fight for the answer to what is love to one's dying day?

Ages 16+

Autumn Portraits

February 6, 7.30pm, £12 (£10 cons)

A series of five interlocking vignettes, this compelling solo puppet-and-mask performance, top right, presents the humorous and touching interplay of different puppet characters and their manipulator. Each of Eric Bass' intricate handcrafted rod puppets are characters in the autumn of their existence, examining their pasts and engaging with their former selves. Produced by American multi award-winning company Sandglass Theater, this production, which combines Eric's own superlative craft with traditional Japanese Bunraku methods of puppetry, has garnered great acclaim around the world.

Ages 14+

Butterfly

February 7, 7.30pm, £16 (£14 cons)

A UK premiere of this striking adaptation of Madame Butterfly, below, explores themes of love and loss, and of hope and disappointment, in Ramesh Meyyappan's celebrated visually poetic and multi-disciplinary style. Complemented by Gavin Glover's expressive puppets this unique interpretation creates a lush, textured and innovative piece of visual theatre. Ramesh Meyyappan is theatre creator whose solo performances and collaborations have received great national and international acclaim. His production Snails & Ketchup was a particular high point of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

Ages 12+

Manipulate Visual Theatre Festival runs at Norwich Puppet Theatre from January 31-February 7, performance pass £65 (£55 student), 01603 629921, www.puppettheatre.co.ukFor full festival details www.manipulatefestival.org

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