The appeal of Latitude Festival is the ability to experience a vast range of adventurous, playful and surprising work in one picturesque setting. The undulating ground and woodland grottos create a landscape of discovery, where curiosity is continually rewarded and you can never be certain what is performance and what is real life. Perching on the end of a fallen log I try not to overhear a couple’s intense conversation, belatedly realising that I am accidentally eavesdropping not on love’s young dream, but on a clandestine rehearsal amongst the trees.
Latitude is the type of place where a common garden shed may burst open to reveal a full band with an ingeniously lo-fi ‘mixing desk’ or where stumbling into a tent may find you sharing tea and biscuits with a group of strangers at a dinner table. Very few festival experiences are as civilised as Northern Stage’s Tea is an Evening Meal, where bonafide Northern lass Faye Draper explores our quirks and habits at that most potent symbol of family life – the dinner table – all the while inviting us to pour ourselves a cuppa and tuck into a plate of digestives (even dunking is allowed!). Laura Mugridge’s orange VW campervan Joni is parked next door, where small groups can go on a charming trip in the Fringe First winning Running on Air. Mugridge is a natural storyteller, and the laughs come gently, as if chatting with an old friend, rather than from watching a comedic performance. Together we help her recreate some of Joni’s more memorable trips, while Laura shares personal truths from her own life that make us smile wryly in recognition.
Yet it’s not all playing tin whistles with strangers in the back of a van – Latitude has more than its fair share of conventionally staged theatre from up-and-coming and established companies too. The first piece in Theatre Uncut‘s Latitude programme Open Heart Surgery is so subtle that it takes a while for the full impact to hit you and for the audience work out exactly what this politically charged project is aiming at. But when a woman’s thinly-veiled joviality gives way to sad anger, as she laments the ‘necessary’ and devastating treatment of a loved-one for an illness no-one knew existed, it sets the tone for the rest of the programme. Each of the pieces achieve a well-judged balance between black comedy and political comment, with Lucy Kirkwood’s Housekeeping making people particularly uneasy. On the whole Theatre Uncut’s plays don’t preach, showing instead allegories and stories that lead you to think about how government policy impacts on individual lives, with the significant exception of Anders Lustgarten’s Fat Man. Less a piece of theatre and more one man’s diatribe against the greed and deception of the financial institutions, Fat Man is the only one to respond to current events – the Greek riots, even Murdoch’s demise – in a manner that is utterly fundamental to this form of quick-response theatre. Lustgarten is rewarded by the strongest reaction from the audience who become fired up by his call to arms.
It was a brave, if not entirely successful, decision for the National Theatre of Scotland to bring David Greig’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart to Latitude’s Cabaret Tent. Drawing the audience in with their beautiful folk balladry, the cast then take them on an amusing adventure in a sleepy, snowy Border town with our hero, a straight-laced academic. What begins as an eccentric academic conference on Border Ballads – traditionalist Prudencia pitched against the post-post-structuralists and her motorbike driving, Tweeting nemesis Colin Syme – descends into its own dark tale of supernatural forces, self-discovery and erotic attraction. Written in playfully irreverent verse and with physical feats around, across and above the cabaret tables, it is a physical and lyrical joy to behold, and the cast did well to compete with the audience sat at their feet and the thumping bass of a nearby soundsystem. Few things can sustain a festival audience’s attention for two hours, and while anyone who wandered in would have been utterly perplexed by the sight of a man dancing on a table in his underwear and crash helmet while the audience sang terrace chants at him, those that stayed with Prudencia from the start were duly rewarded. Yet the setting showed that the benefit of having access to such a range of performances in one place is not without its drawbacks and Latitude’s suitability as a place to watch theatre is by no means an unqualified success. It was disappointing that despite the cast’s best efforts, the haunting power of Prudencia’s own ballad was not fully achieved on this rather difficult of stages.
Check back with Exeunt for continuing Latitude coverage across the weekend.