A music festival, even one as gentrified as Latitude, represents a tension between individual and collective experience. Crowds are everything and everywhere, a show is a success if it ‘had a good crowd’, though without the immediate financial significance that this would have outside of the perimeter; bands are judged not only on their musical performance but also their ability to capture a ‘moment’, to forge a euphoric one-ness with their surging audience. But with their ‘OK, I’ll meet you after Foals’ and their ‘damn, my phone’s run out of charge’ and their ‘I’m not eating noodles again, you can fuck off if you think I’m eating noodles again’ they are also places of individual exploration and discovery. There are many tracks to take through Latitude’s sparkling, sprawling line-up – spanning art, music, dance, collage in the woods and roving players.
Some tracks are well-trodden and carefully signposted, others ill-marked and overgrown. This review represents the experience of two festival goers chasing theatre and performance along two different tracks, neither of whom like Foals or Noodles, and one of whom didn’t even bring a phone.
Music and Lyric(s)
Alice Saville: We started by saying this is a music festival, but gigging, dancing hedonism is strictly optional. You could easily fill all your time recreating a muddy Bloomsbury, flitting between literary salons and publisher’s stalls, or wholesomely pond-dipping and whittling in the children’s field. Away from the big arenas, smaller music acts infiltrated the theatre and literature stages. Jeffrey Lewis projected and sung along to a comic book life of Alan Moore, then went on a musical polemic in moderated praise of Pussy Riot. It was a salvo against the barricades of commercial sponsorship and music industry machinations – which were up at Latitude, but not quite as high or invulnerable as they might be elsewhere.
Stewart Pringle: Where Kraftwerk pulled in a vast crowd with their addition of (rather shallow) stereoscopic 3D to the usual ‘four men playing keyboards’ shtick, Jonny and the Baptists played a strong set to a gradually growing audience, who’d probably realised that they only know, like, two songs off The Man Machine and even that’s mainly due to The Mighty Boosh. Jonny and his Baptist thump through some of the highlights from last year’s show with aplomb, but it’s the new material, from a feel good Thatcher-basher to the hilarious wedding lament ‘Festival of Me’ that really get the crowd going.
Competing with their electronic forbears in terms of spectacle are eccentric electro-pop duo Neon, Neon who perform their concept album Praxis Makes Perfect with the aid of an immersive theatrical experience from the National Theatre of Wales. It’s a Depeche Mode-tinted biography of communist publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, taking in his privileged upbringing, his conversion to revolutionary communism by his father’s gardener, and his eventual ascent and decline as Italy’s most controversial publisher. On record it’s a more coherent but less exciting collection than Neon, Neon’s previous Delorean biography Stainless Style, but the addition of linking material by Tim Price and a fun multimedia production that stays just on the right side of chaotic by director Wils Wilson makes it a fun if rather limited experience. The performers occasionally struggle to create a sense of danger and immersion within the raked seating of the Theatre Arena, but as copies of the ‘banned’ Doctor Zhivago are tossed overhead and snatched away by Soviet leopards and Feltrinelli stares into the crowd puffing at his cigarette, the atmosphere of resistance through reading is contagious. Gruff Rhys and Boom Bip are onto something with their Neon, Neon project, and it can only be hoped that there’ll be more ambitious collaborations like this in their future.
Alice Saville: Latitude’s line-up of bands is a bit of a crowd-pleasing hotch-potch, but creative director Tania Harrison has tried to string the festival’s other offerings along the theme “Neuroscience vs Sexuality: What Defines Me?” In interviews, she’s explained that she was inspired by the idea of the “gay cure”, by nature versus nurture arguments, by labels put on people.
The Faraway Forest is at the theme’s heart, designed to become the festival’s Amsterdam. Bedded down among trees, this is a rather folk-horror vision of the city – headless Barbies in boxes hanging from trees, a naked women made from straw, pretty painted houses with bizarre performance rituals unfolding inside. The forest’s anarchic playground feeling comes out at dusk. What was dustily twee by day gained a special magic on Saturday night, when a huge spandexed crowd of lip-synching, sax-toting dancers invaded the outdoor theatre stage.
A tidal wave of 70s and 80s glam and camp washed up plenty of glittery flotsam; a Bowie tribute act, workshops to sew sequins to gloves, and to collage pop art mobiles. But the fun didn’t really link to much discussion of sexuality. Stonewall’s Chapel of Love – marrying off couples of any gender – doesn’t have much bite when even the Queen’s waved her gloved hand to same-sex marriage. Harrison has talked about the idea of different tribes being steered through the festival, each with their own pathway – at dusk, the bridge from the campsite saw a teenage stream to the big music stages being navigated by the literary pilgrims, off for a quiet night, as the contemporary dance devotees at the Waterfront Stage looked placidly on. The hefty, £10 festival guides can feel a bit like a phonebook you can’t find your friends in. Maybe there’s room for more flyers, apps, signboards to help people who really want to chase the theme, to net the neuroscience talks and music acts and stories and installations and tie them up into something – if not neat, at least strung together.
As a theme for the festival, gender comes across far more strongly than sexuality. Theatre at Latitude feels female-dominated, reversing the usual ratios which were dignified by the days of Shakespearian drama, when there weren’t enough boys to go round, but then staidly settled in, even after there were far more actresses than the odd all-female Hamlet could soak up. The Lyric Hammersmith takes to the Forest stage with two pieces with all-female casts – here, you hardly notice – but also bring femininity into focus, thinking about what happens when women stop behaving, stop acting the lover/daughter/mother and go wild, context free.
RashDash’s The Frenzy liberates three women from Greek-chorus weeds to a Bacchanalian wild rumpus. Libations are poured, tables danced on, fury raised. Their voices blend with pure, uncomplicated power that doesn’t need amplification, but uses it in a kind of revenge on the assailing forces of the Noisy Toys stall across the path, the lure of the drinks tent, the incomers tripping over stumps and nettles. Tangled Feet’s Push is a similarly chaotic take on motherhood – prams collide, breast milk and puke shower the stage and audience. This is femininity gone wild in the woods.
Each of Us has a Little on the Inside
Alice Saville: A friend exploded at how twee everything was – a stall selling animal tails was the final straw. Granted, we’d just been invited to skip through the woods by a man dressed as Bambi, sharing a bottle of deer-decked Babycham. Little painted houses, balloons, flowers – the forest’s daytime look is children’s party via school panto. So much of the theatre was self-conscious, knowing, playful, artful. Little on the Inside stood out for occupying a prison space of deprivation that trapped and magnified emotional intensity.
Stewart Pringle: Clean Break are a theatre company with a fantastic education programme, taking practitioners into women’s prisons to introduce performance into their rehabilitation, while reciprocally producing theatre which reflects the stories of these disenfranchised prisoners. Obviously a laudable company, Little on the Inside, a taut duologue by Alice Birch, is also an overpowering piece of theatre. Two women meet in prison, one (Simone James) a fiery rebel flipping birds and fuck-yous to anyone who crosses her path, while the other (Susan Wokoma) retreats into her own interior world, presenting a mask of total stoicism to the harsh realities of her life. Their relationship develops through story-telling and fantasy, neither straightforwardly sexual nor rejecting that possibility. Wokoma weaves a sensual daydream of a patch of grass beneath a mangrove tree, and James luxuriates there as if it’s the first soft and yielding thing she has lain against in a long, long time. James’ performance is the more pyrotechnic, as she flings herself against her cell wall and howls, but there’s also a potent stillness, a fullness, to Wokoma’s, and overall Birch’s play feels like a vital, jagged shard of glass stuck in a sunny festival afternoon.
If Ben Moor’s Each Of Us has a defining message, it seems to be that the contents and conventions of the world, particularly those mediated by refracting mediations such as corporations or profits, are arbitrary and absurd. A tripartite story of interlocking relationships, it concerns a ‘professional thwarter’, hired to undermine his own company at every turn (presumably as part of some obscure compliance programme) who seeks fulfilment in family, love and friendship in turn. There are plenty of poignant observations on the rituals of nostalgia and limerence, with Moor an affable and mildly professorial narrator, a sort of Brian Cox meets the BFG. There are musical interludes by Suns of the Tundra, with have a post-rock sodium glow to them, like staring from a hotel window in city you’ve never visited. It’s Moor’s relentless barrage of ingenious concepts that really astounds, however, his ability to queer an everyday concept or suggest a technological innovation which feels only coincidentally alien to us. His stoneless engagement void to represent years of possibility, his dish of left-handed butter, they’re concepts that demand a grin, and they spill out line after line, encrusting Moor’s narrative until it shines remarkably bright. It’s a lapidary example of Moor’s prowess as storyteller, and perhaps even the small but perfectly formed highlight of Latitude’s arts programming.
Alice Saville: It would take a black metal band to come up with a less-family friendly sounding back catalogue than Bryony Kimmings; Sex Idiot,7 Day Drunk and her YouTube hit The Fanny Song. Her new show isn’t just suitable for, but half-written by her nine-year-old niece Taylor; the pair have created popstar “Catherine Bennett” as a nerdy, clumsy rival to the slick pop princesses marketed to children. Catherine’s planned golden tickets to celebrity status are three songs about the jungle, dinosaurs (she has a day job as a palaeontologist) and apathy, complete with YouTube videos and dance routines. The piece feels a bit like a school assembly, but a really, really good one – its already been touring primaries, starting with Taylor’s own (and is described in more depth by Rachel Porter here).
Stewart Pringle: If it were possible to get sick of Daniel Kitson, you’d probably be sick of him by the time the coaches arrive at the end of Latitude. He is Fucking Everywhere, performing five times on top of presenting his first ever concert film, a recording of It’s Always Right Now, Until It’s Later, which I miss because his projector breaks down, which feels like a technological rebellion against Kitson’s unprecedented step into recorded media. Fortunately, the four out of five performances I catch suggest he’s still more than worth the exposure. After the Beginning. Before the End, his latest theatre cum stand-up show, is the most explicitly think-y piece he’s created so far. It feels like a natural extension of As of 1.52PM… in that it either discards or undercuts the homely whimsy of his career-defining shows in favour of a harsher, more wordly edge. Where last year’s show exploded the myth of Daniel Kitson the brand and then folded that explosion in on itself to create an Inception-level conundrum, Kitsons all the way down, this barely touches on his art or its status, in any respect other than the cause of his current Google-ability and affluence. This is a show about identity and synchronic self-hood. How single incidents remembered or misremembered can shape a personal or a socially mediated understanding of the self. It’s also about hitting your mid-thirties and buying a pool table rather than fathering children, and it’s viciously funny to boot. But though the show is broader than it is deep, in that its central concept is explained early and its meanderings variations and musings rather than interrogations, it feels spikier and less immediately accessible than what’s gone before it, and that’s no bad thing. Kitson started digging himself out of his hole before anyone had noticed he was in it, and After the Beginning… sees him standing at the brim and waving as if it was the easiest thing in the world.
Its the density of his main show makes Kitson’s new collaboration with Gavin Osborn, Lucinda Ding and the Monstrous Thing, all the more joyful. Okay, so it’s got a time-shifted twin narrative in which Kitson delivers the story of a young man pestered by unwanted parcels and pursued by a strange beast, and Osborn sings interludes describing the beast’s childhood friendship with said chap’s crush Lucinda, but it’s basically a slightly sweary midnight Jackanory built to make your heart swell like a reformed Grinch’s. The thing that makes it so magical is how unnecessary it is. It’s not a commercial venture, it’s not a gimmick, it’s two artists who clearly love each others work coming together to show people something they’ve knocked together, and the fact that it happens to be pupil-dilatingly adorable is just the way it is.
Kitson’s Work In Progress is best left unrecorded, suffice to say it was a characteristically brilliant ramble including a bollocking handed out to a photographer from A Younger Theatre and a threat to clock a crying baby with an apple, and that the snatches of his upcoming Manchester Royal Exchange show were delightful. The story that seems to be forming is one of a man holding out against the trend of middle-class conformity, but the one man is up a tree and worried about sorting out a decent Pay As You Go tariff, so it sounds a very promising mixture of Kitson’s discomfort at his place among his house-buying peers and a sprinkle of his old-school wonder at the small and lovely things in life.
PEEP. SCOOP. SPLASH.
Alice Saville: If the theatre tent is under attack from the forces of the outside world, the tweely-named Pandora’s Playground is more of a battleground. On the route connecting campsite to music stages, this field of permanent, show-specific spaces gets raided by crowds that might balk at tiptoeing underneath an arch that reads ‘Faraway Forest.’ Three shows reflect their transient, lunch-clutching audiences by appropriately foot-loose set-ups. Les Enfants Terribles and Ackerley Specials inhabit baroquely modified, stationary camper cans, while Leeds Met’s piece The Wagon never settles down anywhere. Their red, black and white-face might owe a debt to 1927’s distinctive visual aesthetic, but good luck to them ever calling that one in – the company traipsed about with an air of mild discontent, stepping from chair to chair, never settling down to perform the protest threatened by their waving red flags.
Les Enfants Terribles’ Marvellous Imaginary Menagerie was a show that seemed set on surprising its audience into staying. Curtains rolled back to reveal a trapeze, or decapus (an octopus x 112.5%) or amazing balloon pumping toads who need to be licked before they explode – with psychedelic side effects. Guiltily tearing myself away to the next excitement, I was ambushed by the Forest Fringe, who were filming people’s dreams, in the company of a cardboard cut-out of the Queen and a lion who’s mane was a giant red tutu. The haphazard direction (out of focus out of focus…now IN focus!) felt completely spontaneous, not needy – actors were requisitioned from passers by, then slipped back into the festival, as the self-sufficient carnival rolled on.
There’s more silliness on offer from Scoop and Splash, both co productions with the Lyric Hammersmith, Greenwich+Docklands International Festival, and Watford Palace Theatre. Splash is a complex array of pipes with water flowing through like a giant game of marble run, illustrating the stages of the water cycle. The performers explore all the permutations of precipitation, from a snowman made of umbrellas to a watergun squirt to the face – ‘Did anyone not get wet?’ There’s lots of movement, but it could have been matched by livelier music, to prise the under-fives away from mum and dad’s lap and pizza for lunch. Scoop has no such educational pretensions, and raked in an audience for a joyful helping of 70s disco, off-colour jokes, sequins and foam cannon chaos. In a blazing hot field, what goes down best is spectacle and sentiment. The audience were the inhabitants of a disastrous village fete, panto, school car-park, harangued and charmed into becoming permanent punters for a melting ice cream van.
Stewart Pringle: There’s definitely a sense in which a dedication to catching the big names can hold you back from the festival’s emergent pleasures and surprises. If you’ve only got half an hour to kill between vital theatre highlights and catching the opening chords of Japandroids in the iArena you’re more likely to spend it picking up or dropping off liquids than wandering the Faraway Forest in search of a hidden treasure. It’s worth making time for a dérive, as Alice makes clear. For my own part I was impressed by the monologues I encountered in the FUEL While You Wait series, short audio dramas accessibly from listening points scattered through the woods. Looking for all the world like one of those late 90’s music samplers that used to jut out of walls in Our Price, they allow for a moment of quiet reflection, where you can catch a strange diatribe against witchcraft or an ethnography of the British queue. Caroline Horton’s piece Waiting to Come Home was a particularly moving and charmingly discursive meditation on the concept of home, complete with reflections on the concept of pathologised nostalgia and scraps of childhood favourite Heidi.
A similar rotation of short dramas can be found within the ominous PEEP booth, resting like a PVC sex-TARDIS in a forest clearing. There have been new works added since its premiere at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, though you have to turn up early to grab one of the strictly limited places. Despite best efforts (well, decent efforts anyway) I only managed to gain entrance to two: Sabrina Mahfouz’s Wank, the shaggy-dog tale of a bunch of early morning masturbators colliding in a park; and Melissa Dunne’s Eggshells, an intriguing monologue that touches on spiny subjects through the alienating imposition of an on-book actor. Both are diverting rather than spellbinding, but they reinforce the impression that the PEEP show is generally worth a look wherever it materialises.
The Fringe’s Fringe
There’s a sense in which Latitude feels too much like a demo tape for the Edinburgh Fringe. There are similarities in atmosphere, of course, with an emphasis on universal participation in the arts and their shared demographic of the largely affluent middle classes, but there is also a considerable cross-over in the line-up. In the same way that the Soho Theatre feels like a victory lap for the cream of the Fringe for nine months out of every twelve, Latitude feels more than a little like a dress rehearsal. Some shows, including Moor’s, are visibly polished, and a chance to catch them before they sell-out the Pleasance Courtyard is very welcome, whereas others, including The Wrong Crowd’s HAG, feel mediocre here in the public premiers, but may well fly when pace, confidence and technical mastery come together. The darker end of the familiar tale of Baba-Yaga is given a modern twist (stay with me, stay with me!) in this kids show with teeth. Its set of suspended skulls that glow to the tune of murdered children is lovely and Grimm, and there’s some whetstoned dialogue as innocent Lisa is turfed out of her childhood home by her Kardashian sisters, but it’s a piece that clearly hasn’t found its pace yet. The puppetry shifts from smartly minimalist to nightmarishly overwhelming, particularly in a horrifyingly phantasmal scene of cannibalism, but it’s a first preview and it really feels like it. It’s going to slay ‘em in Edinburgh, but in the flapping Theatre Arena of Latitude it’s less meaty than it will be. That’s clear even to a curmudgeon who takes ‘dark fairytale’ as a synonym for ‘a slow painful death from the inside’.
The same feeling of developmental partialness hangs over Chris Thorpe’s There Has Possibly Been an Incident and Made in China’s Gym Party. Thorpe’s piece is an intelligent if frustratingly oblique examination of the switch-moments between cowardice and heroism – between disaster and narrowly averted disaster. It’s intertwined narratives of Tiananmen Square, a quasi Breivik massacre and a plane crash are such heavy weather, so greedily button-pushing, that the flat and monotone delivery by three static performers feels like an overstatement of what should be a smart as all hell thesis. It’ll probably turn into something properly brilliant, but here it’s too unpolished to be so unrelentingly insistent. Gym Party, created in association with the Battersea Arts Centre, could go either way. Set up like an ersatz game-show from a Randian dystopia one Saturday Night Format away from reality, it’s initially a playful satire of the culture of talent shows and the meritocracy of the arbitrary merit. As games of Dizzy Racing and stuffing marshmallows into your gob are played as point-scoring rounds, the three performers gradually shift into a nastier form of competitiveness.
The most intriguing moments come in the middle round, where each performer is stripped and mercilessly criticised by their competitors for their physical and social failings. It’s deeply uncomfortable, but when you yearn for a point or principal to emerge to puncture it or drive it home, Made in China seem to reveal that they only really wanted to be Ontrorend Goed after all, and the last round is a lazy re-tread of the kind of crowd-baiting that Audience nailed three years ago. ‘You shouldn’t be hitting each other!’ ventures one plucky spectator. She’s right; they should be working on a better ending. But there’s enough here, and three strong enough performances and characters to build on, that Gym Party could soon turn into something that lives up to its own fascinating build-up.
There’s also a strange energy to the Theatre Arena, and of the Latitude crowd, that makes pieces which have succeeded elsewhere feel less potent. When Daniel Bye’s The Price of Everything somehow fails to connect it raises questions about expectations within a Festival (big F) context. Bye’s monologue is delivered with the same combination of easy patter and sudden burst of confrontation that made it a rightful toast of last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, but here it feels somewhat stilted and hectoring. Bye rarely deviates from his script, and is visibly less comfortable when he does, and Latitude seems to demand a larger dose of the loosey-goosey. Perhaps it’s the sun-drenched fields full of expensive beer and Radio 6 indie rock waiting just outside of the tent-flap that makes Bye’s lecture feel more like a chore, but if so it seems to say something about the kind of theatre that can fly in this world of overwhelming choice and good timez.
Alice Saville: Yes. Almost everything I really liked at the festival felt aware of the audience, and who they were – that they weren’t clutching an ice cream tub and a programme, that there was scratchy grass under-seat or distant drum-beats on the breeze. Its an environment where you’re constantly aware of your own status as audience member, brought back to self-conscious reality. To work, shows either need to use this self-consciousness, to make light of a dozy audience (like Daniel Kitson) or to blow them away with raw agonising emotion, or blended, amplified voices. Mid-way through Kraftwerk, I realised that they didn’t need me, another anonymous face in a sea of cardboard glasses. Theatre at Latitude needs you, wants to lure you in – hungry performers wait to stage ambushes in the woods. You’d snap a pencil trying to trace a straight line through the sprawling programme and straggling stages. We both ended up casting aside broken leads and regrets. We even watched Foals. But behind the cloud-bursting laser show, Kitson was waiting in a theatre, quietly confident that we’d be back.