Review: Arthropoda- MANIPULATE Festival @Traverse 1

Arthropoda - MANIPULATE23 - Paper Doll Militia - Review at

“undeniably great” Arthropoda from Paper Doll Militia should not be missed at this year’s MANIPULATE Festival. Awe-inpiring, challenging, and heartbreaking.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

📍Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
📅 Wed 3 to Sat 4 Feb
💷 £15/£13 (conc.)
🕖 2 Feb: 6pm, 3 Feb: 6pm
🕖 Running time (approx.): 75 minutes (no interval)
👍 Produced by: Paper Doll Militia
🎬 Writer, Director and Co-Production Designer: Sarah Holmes
👉 Mentor/Dramaturge: Clive Andrews
🎶 Musical Director and Musician: Bado Reti
⚒️ Co-Production Designer: Ingrid Scholes
💡 Lighting Designer: George Tarbuck
🎂 18+
🎭 Wheelchair Accessible Venue, Hearing Loop Available

Scots-American circus theatre specialists Paper Doll Militia bring Arthropoda, their latest creation, to premiere at #MANIPULATE23. On the evidence of the first of two performances, it’s destined to leave any audience reeling after an hour of highly skilled, and emotionally fraught storytelling.

On the face of it, a simple tale of girl meets boy, girl moves country to live with boy, its Writer & Director Sarah Holmes‘ next steps which set it somewhat apart from the Hollywood ideal when boy descends into toxic lunacy, before girl emerges highly damaged. Along the way, the two will express their joy, inner lives, dreams, nightmares, and final despair by means of dialogue, drama, cyr wheel, aerial theatre and hair hanging.

This is full throttle theatre, and not a little challenging to an audience impressed to gasping point by their spinning, wheeling, climbing, and soaring artistry – whilst on a roller coaster ride terminating in a pit of misery. That the first half of the story is speckled with happiness, adventure, and a healthy dose of playful comedy, makes its second act all the more stark. Holmes runs a tight dramatic ship, the elements of Arthopoda organically fused, but always pacey, and fuelled by a burning, emotional urgency.

Musical Director and Musician Bado Reti, and musician Joseph Weisberg meanwhile, conspire to create a jazz-infused soundscape, a rhythmic and lyrical heartbeat which careers into waves of torment, before settling on the shores of traumatised self-reflection.

Performers Constanza Ruff and Lee Partridge are pretty sensational, able to invest enough in their terrestrial dramatics so that the weight of their consummate circus skills doesn’t tip proceedings towards spectacle and away from the narrative.

Holmes really has taken on a devilishly tricky prospect with this show, rejecting any depiction of Partridges’s character as a cardboard villain, his abuse of the woman he certainly loves born of childhood trauma, and a tortured inner emotional life. Ultimately though, Arthropoda is a story the abused, and not the (current) abuser, and of the structurally discriminatory issues attending financial security, and social acceptance. Posed the question of whether women would tolerate less from abusive partners if it were easier to disentangle themselves legally and financially, Arthropoda shouts OF COURSE!

Constanza Ruff in Arthropoda © Paper Doll Militia.

Constanza, dark haired, hangs upside down, her dress a vibrant red, her body encased in a net.
Constanza Ruff in Arthropoda © Paper Doll Militia

It’s Ruff’s emotional journey the audience shares in the end, and she embodies it with heartbreaking honesty. It is she, brought up amongst fisher folk, who frames the story amongst the lobster creels of her home waters. Her youth relayed in silhouetted snippets of childhood memoir, she explains the creel as an escapable trap, just one a lobster seems unable, or unwilling to leave. Sometimes, she explains, the buoys marking the traps come loose, and she can’t but think of the lobsters trapped in perpetual, and self-inflicted incarceration.

Accordingly Holmes and Co-Designer, Ingrid Scholes dress their stage and circus props in nets, even going so far as to replace aerial silk with nets for Ruff to dance amidst during happier, earlier moments. Paper Doll Militia have created nothing less than a fully 3D and immersive work of theatrical art.

Partridge does well to embody the doomed abuser, unable to halt their decline into wretchedness despite seeming to make every effort to avert it. It’s a bleak, worse-case scenario, and a tough watch for anyone who’s ever struggled with serious mental health difficulties. It’s essential, of course, to presenting a nightmarish quandary to his loving partner as to when compassion & tolerance evolve into acceptance of abuse. An optimistic reading of the man’s off-stage and unspecified fate provides scope for his continuing efforts towards a healthier psychology. It’s meagre hope, but you take what you can.

Ultimately Arthropoda is an undeniably great event amidst this year’s MANIPULATE Festival. This is physical theatre of an extremely highly, and artistic order. The exploration of difficult questions, and descent towards abject grief is rarely so thrilling for those of us in the stalls – just have something happy to look forward to when the curtain falls. As of this moment seats are still avalable for tonight’s final performance, go book them!

For tickets, and more information on Arthropoda, click here

For more information on the continuing MANIPULATE Festival, click here