The middle of a field may not seem like the most conventional place to broaden your theatrical horizons, but then again, Latitude is no conventional festival. For any who think the festival season is an unrelenting torrent of warm cider, apocalyptic mud and vile portaloos, the opportunities for self-improvement, education and innovation on offer at Latitude provide food for thought.
Associate Director of the National Theatre of Scotland John Tiffany jokes that he wishes the small crowded tent were full of people who wanted to hear him speak, and not merely those with a desire to hide from the rain. Whether present by chance or design the audience nevertheless benefit from a fascinating insight into the Theatre’s work over the past five years, from its launch with Home through to community projects and internationally renowned plays like Black Watch, as Tiffany speaks on theatre’s ability to evolve into new spaces and in the digital age. Tiffany draws the distinction between the centrality of the live experience in theatre and digital initiatives such as Such Tweet Sorrow or NT Live, that while adding to the theatrical landscape must not be confused with theatre as an art form. His argument is that the NTS’s ‘Theatre Without Walls’ mentality reflects mainstream theatre’s ability to evolve and find ways to “not bore”, and that new performance spaces such as fields and tower blocks, and techniques that merge art forms, are on track to be the mainstream of the future.
As Tiffany speaks, a large white hotel sits idly across the grass. Slightly eerie, in the way that run-down motels tend to be, it is unprepossessing until suddenly, late at night, the Electric Hotel bursts into life. The walls of the hotel open to reveal the lives and secrets of its residents to the audience sat outside, the soundtrack playing through their headphones. Directed by Shunt’s David Rosenberg, it is an imaginative physical theatre piece, and the moments of choreography where the many individuals are united briefly and unknowingly in the same action are particularly strong. Yet it is the aural experience that is most memorable, as carefully considered recording techniques create a sonic world which blurs the distinction between theatre and reality.
The pin-point choreography of Electric Hotel contrasts amusingly with the absolute anarchy of the Lyric Hammersmith’s unique take on Jekyll and Hyde, in collaboration with Spymonkey and Peepolykus. It is, quite simply, mad as a bag full of ferrets and an amusing and refreshing piece perfectly suited to the festival atmosphere. It does not once feel like staged anarchy or carefully rehearsed spontaneity, but real wildness, with so many slips and scrapes it is a wonder they don’t break any limbs, and blatant corpsing that just adds to the sense of fun.
It is likewise wonderfully bizarre to find yourself eagerly anticipating a performance by someone whose work you have repeatedly read about and discussed, while next to you sits a little boy dressed as a frog. The adults are duly captivated by Tim Crouch’s ‘I, Malvolio’, while children feel freer to yell out at the ridiculous figure, even taking to the stage to kick him. Crouch is remarkable at maintaing absolute control over his audience, letting us feel as if we’re bullying him, inviting us to help him die, and then turning it masterfully on its head as Malvolio asserts his sanity. It is worrying how enthusiastically adults and children alike relish the role of the bully, and Crouch yet again makes you reconsider the presence of the audience, while also highlighting aspects of Shakespeare’s plot in a way you never thought about before.
Latitude teaches you that walls can be broken down. Whether these be the literal walls of the theatre or the metaphorical barriers to new audiences and new experiences, Latitude succeeds in making you reassess theatre – for a reward like that I can even stand the rain.