Edinburgh’s puppet and visual theatre festival rounds up with the poignant and moving Last Rites, the both comedic and disturbing Simple Machines and the modest yet mad Invaders

EDINBURGH’S excellent Manipulate festival – which showcases international puppet theatre, animation and visual/physical theatre – ends today with performances of two very promising works: Ragnarok (by Edinburgh-based company Tortoise In A Nutshell) and Ruins (by the Megahertz company of Glasgow).

Last Rites – created by the Ad Infinitum company of Bristol and starring the outstanding Scots-Singaporean theatre-maker Ramesh Meyyappan – was a definite highlight of this year’s programme.

In what appears to be an autobiographical piece, this solo work (which was staged at The Studio) stars Meyyappan (who is Deaf) in the role of a man of South Asian, Hindu ­heritage who, as the eldest son, is expected to arrange and perform the last rites for his recently ­deceased father. Co-created by Meyyappan and George Mann, the show combines ­movement, British Sign Language (BSL), written English, inventive stage projections and a small ­number of props to explore the tumult of mixed ­emotions that emerge within our protagonist as he faces bereavement, the pressures of duty and a flood of memories.

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There are very few stage performers who ­possess Meyyappan’s extraordinary ­capacities for deep, humanistic empathy and ­bold-yet-nuanced expression of human ­emotion. From the outset of the piece, in his ­extraordinarily versatile body as well as his remarkably engaging face, the artist exudes a sense of his character’s anguish.

However, the pain of bereavement soon ­intersects with a panoply of other feelings. For instance, our protagonist is conflicted over the expectation that he prepare his father’s body for a Hindu funeral.

On the one hand, he wants to honour his ­father’s wishes. On the other, however, he doesn’t share his old man’s faith and ­wonders where, in these religious rituals, there is space for his own grief and his instinctive desire to ­enact personal rituals of remembrance and parting.

Memory brings our protagonist warm ­recollections of times with his father (who is symbolised, with beautiful simplicity, by his eyeglasses), not least in the deceased man’s beloved garden. However, it also evokes ­painful ­remembrances of the wedge that was placed ­between father and son by the former’s refusal to learn sign language.

All of this and more (including the abusive neglect of Deaf children by elements in the ­education system) are evoked powerfully and sensitively by Meyyappan. As ever with this ­superb artist’s work, the piece is constructed in such a way as to feed the senses of both deaf and non-deaf audience members. For example, not only are the passages of BSL represented for those who do not have sign language in ­Christopher Harrisson’s excellent projections, but Meyyappan’s performance is ­accompanied by an evocative musical score by Tayo Akinbode, rooted in the classical music of South Asia.

Beautifully lit by Ali Hunter and directed with gorgeous warmth and clarity by Mann, Last Rites is an extremely moving piece of ­theatre, and another glowing testament to the skill and emotional integrity of Meyyappan, both as ­deviser and performer.

It is a testament to the sheer breadth of the ­Manipulate programme that one could, on the same day, take in Meyyappan’s piece and the ­entirely different, almost ­brain-meltingly ­fascinating object theatre work Simple ­Machines.

The National: Simple Machine.

The work of Flemish artist Ugo Dehaes, the production brings the audience around a large table (in the Fruitmarket gallery) at which the show’s deviser introduces us to the creations of the title.

At the beginning, Dehaes tells us about his past work as a choreographer who, beset by the huge financial pressures of an ­increasingly ­philistine culture, felt compelled to make his dancers redundant. He has, he explains, ­resorted instead to an investigation of the ­capacity of AI-facilitated robots to replace human performers.

To those unfamiliar with the Flemish artist, the narrator (and object theatre maker) seems like an elaborate, satirical creation. It is not so, however. It is true, at the very least, that ­Dehaes has been a dancer and choreographer for many years.

What he shows us, on the surface of the ­table, and from beneath and above it (and, later, in a ­series of extraordinary installation works) are ­robots of various kinds that, ­disquietingly, ­appear to combine the organic with ­various technologies (computer, mechanical and ­electronic).

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Dehaes invites us to witness “unborn” ­robots in various states of gestation within their ­“cocoons”. By turns humorous and disturbing, these animal-robot hybrids seem responsive to external stimuli.

In the section after the initial performance, audience members are encouraged to engage with and manipulate a series of AI-enabled ­robotic dancers, such as Runner, a robot that attempts to teach itself to run, memorising and implementing its “best” moves in order to ­improve constantly. The distinctive ­ingenuity and imagination of the piece is remarkable.

Unique though it is, however, it is, in its ­bleaker implications, reminiscent of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s famous work Can’t Help Myself in which a large hydraulic arm, seemingly ­driven by a relentless, computerised logic, ­appears to work itself to a slow death.

There is dark humour, too, in Invaders, ­presented in the Traverse Theatre’s studio by French group Compagnie Bakélite. In an ­intense 25 minutes of theatre, the suit-wearing Olivier Rannou – his face painted white like some kind of zombie punk businessman – ­enacts a scene of Cold War-era UFO panic using a tiny TV screen, three briefcases and a bunch of ­miniature ­objects.

The National: Invaders. Photo Virginie Meigne.

The show balances itself between ­modest ­genius and certifiable madness with the ­alacrity of a fearless trapeze artist. The ­American ­cultural references (perhaps most famously ­Orson Welles’s 1938 radio version of HG Wells’s The War Of The Worlds) are well known, but Rannou presents them in a way that is wonderfully madcap, fiendishly clever and mind-bogglingly detailed.

Delightfully archetypal flying saucers arrive, the world’s great cities are menaced, entire ­armies are scrambled, a jet-powered suitcase-cum-spacecraft takes off. All this and more ­occurs on a humble tabletop. Rannou performs the whole thing with a winning, crazy charisma.

In the age of digital culture, Invaders is a fabulous last bastion of the physically tangible.

The Manipulate festival ends today: manipulatearts.co.uk