Features Published 24 July 2019

A Helter Skelter Ride Through Latitude

Alice Saville sorts the (pink) sheep from the GOATs in her write-up of 2019's frenetic Latitude festival.
Alice Saville

My favourite performance at Latitude was:

-The young woman in the pink tasselled leotard who wandered highly high-ly through the Cabaret Tent, resting her head on one woman’s chest and staying there unevicted, even when she started pulling at this stranger’s eyelashes as though they were an entirely new concept to her.

-The three drunk guys who tried to de-rain their drenched tent at 3am by tipping it upside down, making mournful sweary exclamations like drunken Chuckle Brothers.

-The toddler who singlemindedly chased a blue balloon through the audience, oblivious to the attention she was stealing.

Okay, technically none of these are actual programmed performances, of which there are plenty, ranging from trad productions in Latitude’s huge main theatre tent to gig-theatre to circus to comedy to spoken word (apparently there’s also a music line-up but bar Underworld it was dead to me).  Plus the boho middle-class accoutrements of wild swimming, fancy food stalls, wellness areas, mini-funfair and pink-tinted sheep (which PETA protested this year: they’ll be livid when they hear about burgers). But the festival context injects a chaos of its own. As West End theatres wage their perpetual struggle to tame the unruly audience, shows at Latitude learn to shrug their collective shoulders at audience members who stumble in and out with spilling pints and pick the straw off their clothes. Or, even better, embrace their chaotic energies and channel them into something powerful.

Interactive space show The Mission divided the audience into groups who were responsible for forming a new society on Mars. It’s a bit like an extra-smart version of one of those games beloved of geography teachers. “We’re starting a new society, we should do things differently”, says one lanyard-decked woman – but it’s harder to form a consensus on what ‘differently’ should look like. There are some very ‘yikes’ moments in the ensuing debates, courtesy of audience members who are willing to sacrifice one settler for herd immunity, or turn away 80 would-be refugees to burn up in space. Exit Productions have crafted a structure that works really well to bring out these tensions, but also to keep things fluid, to keep everyone engaged and contributing. I left feeling mildly depressed by how easy zealotry can turn to borderline fascism, but also excited by the way this kind of performance can make you confront the deep differences in how people’s minds work.

After this exhilarating/terrifying space debate chamber, The Pappyshow’s new work Care felt like something between a school assembly and a party political broadcast. It’s unabashedly and uncomplicatedly pro the NHS – in common with me and around 95% of the UK’s population. Good. Socialised healthcare. What’s not to like. I’ve seen quite a few shows about the NHS around its big anniversary; for what it’s worth, my favourite was the Michael Wynne’s meticulously researched and densely political immersive show Who Cares at the Royal Court, but Mark Thomas’s Check Up was also hugely informative on the tensions under the surface of this vast organisation.

Care is not informative and not trying to be, I think. It’s more like a vigorous jaunt through our individual relationships with the NHS, led by a peppy crew of young performers; its main emotional note is a fairly uncomplicated one of ‘gratitude’, perhaps because none of the performers seemed to have especially involved relationships with healthcare. At one moment, the whole cast did 60 star jumps in homage; which highlighted that this is an entirely young/slim/able-bodied group of performers. Similarly, the moment where they costed up the services used by one cast member was hilarious (as a kid he pretended to have a frozen face, causing much psychological evaluation) but this focus on money also risked suggesting long-term ill and disabled people should feel guilty, or grateful, or like a burden on a struggling service. The whole point of the NHS is to take away that fear, and our gratitude shouldn’t rule out making space to interrogate the many gaps in its cradle-to-grave services.

Still, Care is wonderfully suited to a festival environment: the big, bold shapes its huge cast make fill the stage, and hold the audience’s attention. After all this fresh energy, I saw Sometimes Thinking, Frantic Assembly’s slight, 30-minute long 25th anniversary show, and somehow went away thinking I’ve seen this Before. The physical theatre pioneers tell the story of a couple’s shifting relationship, its compendium of devices and tricks are superficially exciting but it feels like they need new collaborators to inject some ideas. It’s a bit underwhelming as a headline act, and the programming of Adam Lazarus’s Daughter alongside it in the main theatre space also felt like a misstep: a harrowing show about sexual violence is hard enough to handle, even when you’re not physically and emotionally weakened by excessive cider, lukewarm showers and serious sleep deprivation.

In a lot of ways, Latitude is a tough environment for theatre: sound bleed, technical struggles, and unreliable audiences sprawling lethargically on the smaller venues’ dusty grass floors. I love it and its informality. But even so, it feels like a festival that could do with a second, smaller ‘proper’ theatre space. It’s easier to pay attention and get involved when you can sit up on a chair. Middle Child’s new show The Canary and the Crow was a case in point: emceed by Nigel Taylor, its bouncy grime opening moments get the crowd moving, but the energy dips as its narrative progresses. Still, it’s memorable and sharply original. Daniel Ward’s narrative follows a black working-class boy who gets a scholarship to a private school and finds himself an outsider, shoved out the way in the playground, typecast by teachers, and alienated from his old friends. Ingeniously, its songs clash grime with two cellos that jab furiously, as Rachel Barnes and Laurie Jamieson portray the upper class white people who patronise him, or rub off the edges that don’t fit into the school’s tight mould. It still feels loose, but I’m fascinated to see how it evolves.

Gary McNair in ‘Chronicles’

Gary McNair’s Chronicles also dramatised tensions around class and creativity, with a wry subtlety that made it my surprise festival highlight. I’d read shedloads about William McGonagall, literature’s most famous ‘bad’ poet, and his relentless quest to break into the literary world from his base in 19th century Dundee. I’d imagined him to be some kind of pooterish pompous figure, filling a comfortable retirement with scribblings. Actually, he was anything but. McNair’s text shows him to be a poor out-of-work weaver struggling to survive, let alone become a poet, in a society with no benefits or pensions. It’s all told using a 21st century version of McGonagall’s signature rhyming doggerel: lines career drunkenly out of shape, lurch away on tangents before clunking back for that all-important closing rhyme. It makes you listen, wait for the flung-up ball to land. There are songs (from a slightly-underused band) and whimsical touches aplenty. But ingeniously, McNair never lets you laugh at McGonagall. The only words of his that appear in this show are his most emotive ones, where he itemises the difficulties of being a genius, without rich friends to support and praise you. Instead of invitations to literary parties, he gets flung vegetables and bricks.

I’d read the rave reviews for James Wilton Dance’s Leviathan but I wasn’t really ready for how moving I’d find it when I stumbled almost-past it, as it unfolded on a riverside stage. Dancers in monochrome leotards rise and fall like waves, Henham Park’s calmer lake acting as a backdrop for their furious sea narrative. A lost figure in black watches them in bewilderment or desolation, still amongst their fluid, virtuoso tumbling; like an outcast posed on the edge of the festival crowds.

The set-up for National Youth Theatre’s Astronaut’s Wives Club was similarly gorgeous: a forest clearing, with a neat little house that fit snugly into the sinuous curves of a giant tree, its low branches sheltering a circle of perfect white wrought iron garden chairs. Its all-female cast looked perfect, too, in Mad Men-worthy prim ensembles and confidently-worn heels. But as playwright Al Smith’s play meandered its way through the weary, unstructured story of a group of wives who ‘support’ each other (but really, undermine each other and bandy round gendered insults) while their menfolk go up into space, I did start to think, really? We’re focusing on the bitchy garden party, when we know that other women (Hidden Figures!) were writing the code that made those space flights possible? It’s interesting for its evocation of a time where space travel had a hectic, if fading, glamour, but it feels like a misuse of these sparky, versatile young actors – the kids who’d flocked to this enticing clearing quickly slipped away in search of brighter excitements.

Latitude is a playground for brands as well as humans. I felt extra aware of the various brand ‘activations’ this year: the various attempts of Pepsi, Next, and the rest to get audiences to play with them felt like an alternative kind of interactive performance, one in which you leave clutching a discount flyer, a uniform product, and a vague sense of confusion. We’re existing in a world where advertising’s tentacles are longer than ever; where people read paid-for content thinking it’s editorial (those ‘five reasons to see x play’ articles), and surrender their email addresses for free key rings. I get why it’s here; people love free things! It probably pays for more art! But I found myself craving the more old-school kind of capitalism, where you grumblingly pay £6 for chips but at least know who’s profiting and how.

Sometimes the shows that work best at Latitude feel like they acknowledge and feed off it as an environment; like Gob Squad’s majestic live-feed-movie-jaunt through its crowds a few years back. Correspondingly, Amazonian Sweat Lodge felt like a conversation with the economic tensions of the festival outside. It imagined a kind of sacred ritual fed by stuff-ordered-off-Amazon, and used Koko Brown’s crackling, crowd-sourced spoken word loops and Joana Nastari’s thoughtful, biting poetry to explore our relationship with buying nice things and fulfilment. One bit that stuck with me was her poem about work: about how capitalism co-opts every possible leisure activity, from sleep to pottery to masturbation, and restyles it as something that’ll make us into better workers. It’s still a work-in-progress but there’s so much potential here, especially to create a kind of visual and sensory atmosphere that echoes its luxuriant words.

This piece is getting longer than the queue for some bespoke seaweed dusted kale chips – or for Latitude’s unsurprisingly popular but well-worth-it wild swimming – so I’ll wrap it up soon. But I do want to talk about Duckie’s Latitude takeover, and the way it queered what sometimes felt like quite a heterosexual space. Travis Alabanza is an incredible host, holding the attention of a disparate crowd of hyperactive baby gays and flower-crowned hen party gals and sturdy middle-aged people on camping chairs, and doling out much-needed queer education to novices and wry jokes for queer regulars. Figs in Wigs kindly popped in with some delicious puns, served up in ‘Cilla Black Bean Sauce’. And then GOAT held the crowd rapt with their incredible, frisky, prancing moves, mixing kidding around with hyper-flexible backbends. I tried to google them but all I could find was:

Which I guess sums up a bit of their energy. There was also a finale involving Mr Blobby which is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen on stage. I’m sorry but I can’t talk about it any more, and hope you live out your days innocently and unaccosted by the sight of his glittery privates.

Cocoon Dance Team, part of the Soho Theatre’s takeover, was another disturbing delight; its trio of dancers serving up delicious pastiches of 00s girl bands, with Monty Python-esque ridiculous walks and gurning pouts. There’s so much more that I wish I’d seen: Figs in Wigs and Sh!t Theatre’s new shows were both over by the time I arrived on Friday (sob!), and there’s plenty more that eluded me, buried deep on Latitude’s utterly unnavigable app. Please, just let us find the art and sort it by time/venue, I beg you. But maybe I’m being too square for a festival that makes room for unexpected, off-schedule encounters: for an out-of-it fairy in a pink tasselled leotard or a marauding sexy-mr-blobby or a pop-up cryptic crossword session in the woods. I didn’t love everything I saw, but there was more than enough to make my packed days at the festival whizz by in a blur of colour and yells and light, like a ride down the festival’s ‘very Latitude’ old-school helter skelter.

Latitude Festival was at Henham Park from 18th-21st July. More info here


Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B



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