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Latitude, at Henham Park in Suffolk (“More than just a music festival”) celebrated its ninth edition last weekend. It is now so big that this year’s programme was a 400-page paperback, with colour-coded flowcharts showing timings across 20 different performance spaces. These ranged from a shed furnished with scatter cushions (the Shed of Stories, of course) to the headline Obelisk stage where Damon Albarn performed as a thunderstorm loomed.
The choice of arts performances alone was enough to overwhelm even the most organised fan. Better just to head into the Faraway Forest, a lovely copse at one end of the site and home to many of the theatre venues, where sailing boats and shoals of fish were suspended from the trees and a rustic bar served prosecco cocktails in plastic flutes.
Nestled at the back of the wood, was the theatre arena, a 550-seat tent where the headline performance acts draw huge crowds (no spontaneity allowed here, you had to queue well in advance for a seat). The theme for 2014’s festival was “Secrets and Lies” and Paines Plough addressed it brilliantly with Hopelessly Devoted, an accomplished prison-set work by the performance poet Kate Tempest. Chess and her cellmate Serena riff expertly on their lives, the what-might-have-beens; the office jobs they could have had: “We could have done lunch”.
Secrets and betrayal are at the heart of this play: while Chess wants to keep her extraordinary singing voice to herself, a recording of her song somehow ends up a viral hit on YouTube (“What’s social media?” asks the incarcerated Chess. “It’s like social services,” says now-free Serena).
The lead theatre productions were slick and speedy (not much here runs over an hour) but the music headliners are the main attractions and, even though actors have microphones, the spoken word at Latitude this year was frequently overshadowed by the deafening noise from big musical stages close by. (Key tip: queue early, sit near the front.)
The RSC, also headlining, brought a new work premiered in its Midsummer Mischief Festival in Stratford-upon-Avon. Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again, by the prizewinning young playwright Alice Birch, is a series of scenes linked by the theme of women taking control of male-dominated and inflected language. It starts off very funny (“Are you having a mental fucking breakdown?” says a boss to an employee who is asking for Mondays off) and, by the end, is dark, absurdist and violent. It didn’t go down uniformly well with critics at Stratford but here, with a young and up-for-it festival audience, it went down a storm.
Latitude audiences are famously fickle – it’s easy to wander in and out of shows, everything is free and there’s always another delight around the corner. Many of the performances I saw, however, held the attention of everyone present, especially in the very small, intimate spaces: it strips it all back to basics and keeps audiences in the moment. Performing in the optimistically named Live Art House (a tent with a painted frontage), the actor Hannah Pierce delivered a virtuoso hour-long monologue, 27 Valiant Adventures in Online Dating. Queueing out of curiosity (inspired by overhearing three young women declaring themselves “huge fans of Hannah”) I was treated to Pierce’s engaging misadventures, including a full rundown on how the Tinder dating app works. (“Isn’t it the same as scouring a bar for fitties?”) Audience ages ranged from young teens through to 70s – and everyone loved it.
My theatre highlights, though, were at opposite ends of the “fun” spectrum. For sheer delight on a summer’s afternoon, Light The Fuse’s Full Stop is a perfect performance piece set to music and patter from radio shows, giving us 24 hours in the life of a bus shelter, including battling mothers with prams in a Western-style shootout (with baby bottles and talcum powder wielded as weapons).
Deep in the forest, on Sunday morning after the torrential rain of Saturday night, women from Clean Break, a group working with those who have experience of the criminal justice system, performed their own work, Meal Ticket. The VIP seats were the logs while the rest of the audience stood among the trees to hear three actors first name the costs of everyday living (“£10.80 a week to visit my son”), then move to the emotional and physical cost of a past mired in drugs and abusive men.
It’s raw, emotional theatre but the wonderful, fresh setting and the evident delight the actors took in performing to a big crowd made it memorable. Latitude’s decision to take the theatre into the fairytale forest, it turns out, transforms and uplifts even the grittiest of subject matter.
The spoken word performances in giant marquees, by contrast, sometimes got lost when the crowds weren’t big enough (or paying any attention – during a thunderously humid weekend some audience members were just there to lie down for a nap). The Poetry Arena standout for me was Mark Grist, a former English teacher from Peterborough turned spoken word performer and rapper (his rap battle with MC Blizzard on YouTube has had 4.3m views).
Grist’s show for Latitude gave us a flavour of the beginnings of his career in rap, which happened accidentally after a lunchtime bet with truculent teenagers. He was a mesmerising live performer – but seemed a bit surprised to be playing to a packed tent of people who’d chosen poetry and performance arts over Damon Albarn as our Saturday night headliners.
Photographs: Marc Sethi; Topher McGrillis