Hosted in venues across Edinburgh, Manipulate describes itself as a celebration of excellence in the fields of animated film, puppetry and physical theatre. It’s a place where sound, light and movement take centre stage and, for one colourful fortnight in the year, push word and written text back down the pecking order of stage performance.
Nowhere is this done with more gritty detail than in Plinth, Al Seed’s gripping, frankly terrifying ruminations on war and myth. First conceived back in 2020, at a time when statues were being toppled across the UK, their validity questioned and their stories being reframed, Plinth does all of that, while rooting itself in the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.
Out of murky light and smoke, and the sound of waves lapping on an unseen shore, a crouching figure emerges on a high plinth. Piled around its base are sandbags suggestive of First World War trenches, and on its own small plinth, perhaps a field radio, stands a white statue of Ariadne. It’s not essential to know the Theseus myth to be drawn into the drama, but it helps to recall that Ariadne, daughter of the Cretan king Minos, both inspired and aided Theseus’s descent into the underground lair of the man-beast to whom young men have been annually sacrificed.
Al Seed’s dusty statue shudders into life – his chest jolting and contracting in painful and protracted paroxysms. In his hand is a surreal, pointed cone, the length of his leg. Is it crutch or limb or weapon? The figure grasps for breath and movement, animated by the driving pulses of Guy Veale’s soundscape. Veale and lighting designer Alberto Santos Bellido are Seed’s most obvious collaborators in creating the piece’s mood and intensity. From the keening of a Middle Eastern singer to a helicopter’s thudding progress and the punctuating flash of exploding grenades, they evoke a world for Seed to move through that is both timeless and specific.
Sharply delineated points of focus stick in the mind. A metal bowl holds a libation, or perhaps it’s a hallucinatory potion. It causes Theseus to be many people in heated debate with one another. A luminous red cord is both the life-saving thread gifted to the hero by Ariadne and a laser beam of modern warfare.
But it’s Seed’s solitary warrior that holds the attention, every human emotion quite literally embodied in movement that is now frenetic, now balletic. Rarely can terror have been expressed more viscerally on stage as when the mythic hero is stalked by his invisible prey, roaring from the deep.
In an illuminating after show Q&A, Seed revealed that he has worked on his footwork as a performer by taking up boxing – and how a turn of the head is directed first by the twist of the ankle and knee. It is this level of precision that draws the eye and adds ceaseless variation to the ritualistic repetition of specific gestures; though nothing in Seed’s performance is more intense than his eyes. They pierce the darkness out of the dirt smeared across his face and at moments glare questioningly at the audience, pinning them to their seats in awed silence.
The narrative thread of Plinth is not nearly so clearly defined as Ariadne’s. Nor is it meant to be. Seed embodies the hero but also the slayed beast; he embraces his beloved in victory but looks horrified by his deeds. Theseus questions himself, and we are left to draw our own conclusions as the images settle in the red dust he treads through. Seed observes that if you take the words away from a performance, it gives the audience agency to bring their own baggage to what’s happening on stage. We become as much participant as observer.
A provocative exploration of the cycles of war runs through much of Seed’s work, and if you can’t catch Plinth on the rest of this tour, then be sure to catch him when he next reanimates the unlearned lessons of history in your neck of the woods. Like Theseus, you’ll emerge from the labyrinth both stunned and questioning, exhilarated and held to account.
Reviewed at The Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
A memorable meditation on war and mythology – ★★★★★ 5 stars
Plinth continues to tour:
TRAVERSE, Edinburgh as part of Manipulate festival
Fri 2 — Sat 3 Feb 2024
BYRE THEATRE, St Andrews
Thu 8 Feb 2024
CUMBERNAULD THEATRE at Lanternhouse
Sat 10 Feb 2024