Features Festivals Published 26 July 2014

Latitude 2014: Secrets, Lies and Optimism

Catherine Love and Mary Halton muse on an art-filled weekend in the fields and forests of Suffolk.
Catherine Love

“Latitude: the Waitrose of festivals.”

Catherine: The words of Mark Thomas, prompted by a punter politely excusing himself halfway through a show in the Theatre Arena, capture both the beauty and the problem of the festival. It’s smoothly running, extraordinarily calm, as polite as any rowdy gathering in a field can be. It’s also overwhelmingly middle-class. Festival-goers line up to buy books, snack on vegan treats and wake up to morning yoga sessions. There might as well be a big “#middleclassproblems” sign hoisted over the campsite.

The insistent, underpinning politics of the festival, therefore, is directed at a group of people broadly united in a sort of loose consensus. The general attitude is one of left-leaning liberalism; chuck a flower garland in the air and you’d struggle not to hit a Guardian reader. There’s also an inevitable hypocrisy at work here, one that is common to the escapist yet controlled environment of the festival, where stealth commercialism creeps in at every opening. You can sing along to protest songs and cheer for the overthrow of capitalism, but not before you’ve spunked a small fortune on overpriced food and lightly racist Native American paraphernalia (seriously, what’s that all about?).

That said, there’s an infectious, galvanising anger pulsing through the festival this year. Thomas’s show, a deeply personal and fiercely political tale of betrayal, is a case in point. This preview of the piece that Thomas is taking to the Edinburgh Fringe this year processes the comedian’s anger following the discovery that the man he took to be his good friend and fellow activist was in fact working undercover for BAE Systems. Much of the show publicly explores Thomas’s own feelings about this treachery, but it also aggressively and decisively sticks two fingers up to the arms trade and the government that supports it. It’s a defiant “fuck you” that is echoed in the Literature Tent, in the comedy sets, even in Lily Allen’s joyous Friday night gig on the Obelisk Stage. And there’s something energising about Thomas’s righteous rage, sending me out into the forest vibrating with that same catalysing anger.

“Secret tent shag.”

Mary: Thursday evening in the Faraway Forest, and we have stumbled into the Forest Fringe tent and Manchester outfit Tales of Whatever’s impromptu storytelling evening. It’s a simple thing, encouraging the audience to tell their own secrets in the form of stories. But the welcoming and relaxed atmosphere proves, more than any other moment of the festival, that the spontaneous can be the most rewarding, as we hear the tale of an entanglement in space and time at a Latitude past that proves a talking point for the rest of the weekend.

Where here secrets are disclosed (and kept) willingly, there is a sense throughout the weekend of uninvited intimacy. RPM Productions’ CCTV cameras observe your every move in the forest, relayed to a mirrored hut where festival-goers can gaze upon fellow attendees indiscriminately, and this is bothersome not because of the feeling of being watched (one nation under CCTV etc …) but of being watched by an interested party. We (or I at least) ordinarily drown out thoughts of CCTV because there are simply far too many cameras for anyone to be paying particular attention to my actions at any given time. In the sparsely populated forest, where each individual is more noticeable, looked upon with more curious eyes and more likely to be spontaneously dancing, applying emergency dry shampoo or staring into space than usual, the cameras suddenly feel coldly invasive and utterly out of place, protruding from trees. I find myself subconsciously spending less and less time under their watchful gaze.

Clean Break’s puncturing, utterly affecting Meal Ticket brings more discomfiting thoughts of surveillance and voyeurism, as Imgoen Ashby’s production sees three women open up about the price of everything – from the shoes on their feet to their rent, debts and the offences that led to the time they served in prison. This was the only time I cried all weekend, and it was honestly in part due to the deep, measured breaths one of the performers was having to take between lines as she talked about the abject lack of human decency she experienced as a sex worker, but also, not insignificantly, because I was choking back the guilt and creeping discomfort at a group of relaxed, overtly well-to-do people watching the spectacle. Every story is real to someone, but these were the realities of the women speaking them, and it was almost unbearable to watch seated on the sun-dappled forest floor with a stomach full of £7 noodles and a gnawing awareness of my own privilege … and now I’ve drifted into the past tense simply to distance myself.

The prevailing feeling on emerging from the weekend is that privacy is a luxury, and the freedom to enjoy exploring secrets and lies in a relatively fearless manner is the domain of the privileged. The ability to watch others is for corporations like BAE, for gated communities where only the outside is under surveillance; withholding information is not for the women in the refugee holding centre of Suhayla El-Bushra’s Fingertips, or the prison of Kate Tempest’s Hopelessly Devoted – where a private conversation is the stuff of dreams. As far as gaining an understanding goes, living in a tent for four days and scrawling faux confessions on a blackboard will never come close, but hopefully it prickles at the senses enough to leave a mark.

Secrets & Lies

“I would like to talk to the capitalists about money, but they only wanted to tell love stories.”

Catherine: Is there a way to make romance radical? This is a thought I carry with me after two of the festival’s comedy offerings, both by brilliant, funny, thoughtful women – Josie Long and Sara Pascoe – and both ostensibly about love stories. Long, silly and serious in the same breath, tells us that she usually talks about politics during her stand-up gigs, but today she wants to talk about romance. Smuggled in under that romance, however, is a hell of a lot of content. In between smart, endearing and frequently hilarious anecdotes about her romantic misfortunes, Long makes digs at the government, at social inequality, at the expectations heaped on female comics. There’s something in the optimism of the show too which feels wider, more inclusive, more implicitly political than simply the hopeful act of falling in love.

Pascoe’s show similarly sneaks in politics under the seemingly innocuous guise of observational gags about relationships. Feminist issues are raised with humour and intelligence and female sexuality is discussed refreshingly frankly, pouring ridicule on the idea that these topics are somehow still taboo in a society that has supposedly lost the capacity to experience shock. We hear about sex drive, pubic hair, periods, and drawings of female genitalia (another one for the weekend’s impressively high vagina count). In some ways (and perhaps because I’ve just seen it again the previous day) it reminds me of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s brilliantly audacious Fleabag, which is willing to go even further and dirtier in prodding at what it means to be a “modern woman”.

But where Fleabag is about sex – or fucking, to adopt its own vocabulary – both Long and Pascoe’s shows are unabashedly, unapologetically about romance. And while love stories have been so co-opted by capitalism, so saccharinely commercialised, so pinkified to perpetuate restrictive stereotypes of femininity, these two women absolutely own them. Rather than these narratives being the domain of airbrushed romcoms and glittery greetings cards, here they feel reclaimed as messy, joyful and ultimately positive human experiences. More than that, these are staunchly feminist narratives, and that – just like the possibility of falling in love – makes me optimistic.

“It’s a performance, not a conversation.”

Mary: It’s witching hour on Sunday night at the Literature Tent and Robin Ince’s Your Culture Is Ailing, Your Art Is Dead is drawing towards a close as an artist lays out her problem with Anthony Gormley (namely that he’s been making the same thing every year since 1986) via a helpful Powerpoint presentation when an enterprising audience member shuts down another who is vociferously defending Gormley’s work. She is cheered on and later awarded a spontaneous prize of various backstage paraphernalia collected together by Ince.

But it makes me shudder to hear those words – particularly in this tent, which has been the source of so many interesting almost conversations over the weekend, quenched in practically identical fashion never by the panellists or the performers, but the audience themselves. Since when has art ceased to be a conversation? There’s an uncomfortable undertone prickling here, suggesting that the majority of those privileged enough to buy a ticket or be invited to Latitude, to enjoy this bubble-filled paradise where copies of the New Statesman are free and even the beer cups are conscience-appeasingly recyclable, are no more interested in a hard conversation than they are in reading the comments section on a Guardian article.

This lack of engagement with opposition of any kind is blurrily, worryingly close to the Conservative behaviours being decried from every stage within earshot and also arises in a panel on the future of the arts and culture in the UK – featuring a well-spoken but disappointingly male majority (5-to-1) of panellists, itself a poster for the need for change in the upper echelons of the arts. In raising utterly vital points about the need for diversity, for better educational facilities, for better touring opportunities and regional support, the inevitable question of the value of the arts broke into a heated debate in the audience. One man told us that the arts education facilities at the state schools he had toured for his daughter (in London, naturally) were perfectly state of the art and he didn’t see a problem at all with access in education thank you very much; a designer spoke up (bravely) to say that she felt people in the arts should be willing to invest in themselves, to spend money on their own work before asking other people to do so.

We – we the panel, we the audience, we the arts community – failed to engage. The panel spouted facts, figures, statistics. The audience booed, as though faced with a pantomime villain. Ultimately, time was up before matters could go further but I was left wondering how it was that, given an hour, a team of makers, writers and activists and a room at least part filled with arts professionals could not make an engaging argument for the value of what we do. Are we genuinely so holed up in our own oases; Latitude, London, the Edinburgh Fringe, so consumed with talking to ourselves, tutting into our tea and writing to Michael Gove that we have no idea how to speak to people outside our community about the value of what it is that we make? Has our activism become more performance than conversation? Is our performance no longer a form of activism that advocates for itself? Surely this is how our art dies.

“Revolutionise the body.”

Catherine: It’s just approaching lunchtime in a sun-drenched forest in Suffolk, and GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN’s Lucy McCormick and Jennifer Pick are singing show tunes while smeared in shit. Number 1 The Plaza is a jolting counterpoint to the sunshine and whimsy of the festival that surrounds it, confronting audiences with an unflinchingly challenging viewing experience. First up, there’s the shit: plastered on skin, deposited into Tupperware, dumped unceremoniously onto the stage. Then there’s the show’s schizophrenic attitude towards spectators, whom Lucy and Jen alternately attempt to amuse and abuse. Add to that the piece’s refusal to settle into any kind of pattern and its insistent needling at the nature of the theatrical contract we are engaged in, and it becomes pretty damn hard to watch.

And yet, uncomfortable as it may be, there’s something about Number 1 The Plaza that prickles away at my mind in the minutes, hours and days after. In amongst the implicit comments on art, authenticity and the nature of the double act, there’s something particularly striking about the presentation of the female body on stage and that body’s compulsion or expectation to entertain. To begin with at least, Lucy strives desperately to engage and please us, while Jen is her dry, deadpan shadow. But as the piece goes on and becomes increasingly messy (both literally and figuratively), the bodies of the performers transform into tools of aggression; their bold display is an act of defiance, subverting the more familiar use of the female body as an objectified site of male desire. Lucy’s pose seems to say, “if I’m going to put my body out there, then I’m bloody well going to own it”. And yet of course it’s never quite that simple.

The female body is similarly a contested territory in Alice Birch’s blistering feminist play Revolt. She said. Revolt again. It’s the second time I’ve seen it, and the more time I spend with it the more convinced I am that this – in its fury and complexity and confusion – is the feminist play for my generation. Posited among its many angry responses to the insidious sexism and misogyny of the modern world is the instruction “Revolutionise the body. (Make it sexually available. Constantly.)” The logic, explained in a livid, devastating speech, is that an invasion cannot be an invasion if it is invited. The body can no longer be a battleground if every assault is wanted. It’s a knowingly flawed argument, but a startling one. Are these the options we are left with as women in the 21st century?

Maybe, but maybe not. For all the anger that (rightly) abounds, Latitude equally has a tendency to infect festival-goers with its giddy optimism. As the crowd gathered for a panel talk chaired by Laurie Penny proudly celebrate their identification with feminism; as the eponymous centenarians of Look Left Look Right’s new film project talk about their love of life; as I dance at Duckie’s club night in the Cabaret Tent, drenched in rainwater and glitter, while a drag act ferociously satirises Margaret Thatcher, it’s hard not to feel just a little hopeful.

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Mary: It is day three of Latitude before I find myself alone for any significant period of time – congruent timetables and unreliable phone reception cultivate a certain (necessary) inseparability – but here, now, in the grass and the sunshine with yesterday’s mud beginning to cake my shins, it arrives. The sense of spontaneity and the desire to explore that I’d been expecting to land in my lap on Thursday evening, that I’d thought would bound forth as soon as I entered the Faraway Forest.

Because it turns out that the festival is a very easy place enjoy your own company, and it might even set you exploring further afield. You can go and have a swing in Morning & In the Dark’s Tell Tale Tit, listening to biographies, dramas and tales of the unexpected; throw loo rolls at Light the Fuse’s intensely smart and beautifully choreographed Full Stop; be serenaded by Gavin Osborn; even dance like absolutely no one is watching and you aren’t dripping in the 35 degree heat at the front of a Kate Tempest gig.

It’s easy to lampoon a festival that provides leather sofas by the Radio 3 stage for being overly calm and polite, but not when you’re enjoying that experience far too much; the safety it provides, the knowledge that you can wander about unimpeded and no one will trample you, start a fight or burn your tent in a drunken fit. In fact, it’s even small enough that you may accidentally bump back into the people you came with, clutching their eco-cups of peppermint tea. We’re all a slight self-parody.

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Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic. She writes regularly for titles including The Guardian, The Stage and WhatsOnStage. She is also currently an AHRC funded PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, pursuing research into the relationship between text and performance in 21st century British theatre.

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