Manipulate 2022 preview: The Chosen Haram and Eat Me
Manipulate's 2022 programme tackles folk-myth, identity, taboo and desire; Sadiq Ali and the Snap-Elastic collective discuss how these ideas surface in their shows
Maybe it's to do with the fact that it takes place in deepest, darkest winter, when most festivities have passed but the days remain short, dark and bleak. Or maybe because it's Scotland's leading celebration of puppetry, one of the world's most ancient and most ritualistic forms of theatre. Whatever the reason, Manipulate has always felt a little Fairy Tale Noir. The Edinburgh-based festival, produced and delivered annually by Puppet Animation Scotland, commonly veers towards art that seems uncanny, inventive and unique, and stories that feel simultaneously age-old and cutting-edge.
This year's programme is no exception. It features a range of shows with echoes of magic and myth, from Lewis Sherlock and Ali Moloney's reworking of Kafka's The Metamorphosis to Adrien M and Claire B's VR 'odyssey' fable. But all of these shows are also decisively contemporary – exploring current-day themes around identity, sexuality, climate crisis and global unrest – and push the envelope when it comes to form and style. We chat to some of the artists behind two very different shows at Manipulate this year, The Chosen Haram and Eat Me, about merging ancient motifs with new ideas, freedom, stigmatised desire and why the internet could be the dark forest or the locked door of the modern-day fairytale.
The Chosen Haram
Opening Manipulate Festival this year is The Chosen Haram, Sadiq Ali's piece about a Muslim man called Ahmad who falls in love with a man called Steve. Drawn from his experiences growing up in Edinburgh, where "one side of life was going to Mosque and prayers, and the other side of life was discovering I am a queer person," the show blends Chinese pole with visual and physical theatre to tell a story of sexuality, faith, addiction and connection.
In a sense, The Chosen Haram follows the same narrative structure as the mythical 'Hero's Journey'. The show's protagonist Ahmad goes on an 'adventure', where he is required to overcome a number of 'barriers, both social and cultural' in order to reach happiness and fulfilment. In the case of The Chosen Haram, this 'adventure' is symbolised by the dating app. "[Online dating] can be a chance to find liberation and freedom, especially if you're in quite a restrictive environment or framework," says Ali. "It can be quite a discreet way to get out of that." But Ahmad's leap into the unknown is, classically, not solely liberating, and throws up some of its own challenges. "What I found, particularly from living in London for a number of years, is that on one side you have this opportunity for liberation and for freedom, and on the other you have the reality of the chemsex [scene] and drugs and sex underworld within the gay community that is very accessible through apps," Ali says. "So you have a chance to find freedom but you also have a chance to find self-destruction."
The female-led collective Snap-Elastic were inspired to make their show Eat Me by an unnerving story that is almost too disturbing to print. A real-life incident of 'consensual cannibalism' led them to begin developing the piece in 2015 (Google it at your own risk). "It interested us – the act of something being consensual, and the shifting complexities of consent," explains Isy Sharman, one quarter of Snap-Elastic. "The framing of what is normal and what's sick – it kind of enters that conversation a little bit, in terms of what society deems as appropriate, even if it's a consensual, private experience between two people. This is what drew us to the idea." An unexpected dynamic at the heart of the show, which won't be revealed here, subverts the traditional idea of what we consider when we think about violent acts like cannibalism. "This sort of violence is so hard for us to understand as a society," says Eszter Marsalko, another member of the group who worked on the project. "But what if [they both view it as] an act of love? That was what interested us – the meeting of violence and love."
The show also came out of the collective's interests and frustrations with true crime and Nordic noir. "That image of women being chased through the forest by men, the glorification of the violence against women – we wanted to pick apart some of these tropes," adds Snap-Elastic's Claire Willoughby. Predator and Prey, as they are called in the show, meet one another on the dark web. Willougby notes that the dark web can be "a place of escape for a lot of people, somewhere where if you have nothing to fear, you have nothing to hide." The dark web "somehow reflects the idea of the woods in fairytales, where people disappear to and come back changed," says Willoughby. "They can be a place of liberation or transformation, where you escape the restrictions of society. And that felt like a really clear connection to us."
Manipulate Festival, various Edinburgh venues, 28 Jan-5 Feb
The Chosen Haram, the Studio, Festival Theatre, 28 Jan, 7.30pm
Eat Me, the Studio, Festival Theatre, 30 & 31 Jan, 8pm