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The theatre at Latitude comes in many shapes and forms. Wandering through the Suffolk festival’s grounds last weekend, you might have witnessed people suspended in the air on the Ockham’s Razor stage; or you might have paused in the Faraway Forest to watch the beautifully crafted shows in the Peep box; or have sat on a log and enjoyed the boundless energy of Nick Kay as a dog in Jon Brittain’s I Think I’m a Good Dog; or have relished the three-part vocal harmonies and intense physicality of Rash Dash’s The Frenzy – all before you’d even reached the main theatre arena.
The festival falls at an opportune time for many performers. With the Edinburgh Fringe just two short weeks away, it offers a chance to hone material or even air it in public for the first time, with the result that some pieces are more polished than others.
It was fitting, then, that the first show to open the theatre on Friday morning was simply titled Work in Progress. The theatre arena had been redesigned – gone were the semicircular benches of previous years, and in their place were front-on, raked seating, facing a raised stage. The capacity had increased too, which was just as well because every seat was taken for Daniel Kitson’s piece, a feat equalled by only two other shows.
Kitson’s success is a triumph of non-marketing. A comedian and storyteller whose publicity is practically non-existent, he shuns TV panel shows, interviews and performances in giant arenas. Yet his reputation as a master of his craft and his obsessive fanbase mean he never has trouble selling out a show.
So if there was a hint of arrogance in his advising a packed audience that the piece would largely be nonsense as he had only written two pages of dialogue at 1am the night before for a show he’s preparing for Manchester’s Royal Exchange in September (he’s skipping the Edinburgh Fringe), then it was at least a well-earned arrogance. Indeed, there was a lot of pleasure in watching Kitson think out loud about concepts to do with gangs and groups, hearing him play with ideas as they came to him and bouncing them off the audience. This may not have been the finished product but it was no less fascinating for that.
The unfinished nature of other shows was obvious when the actors appeared onstage sitting on stools and reading from scripts. This was the approach taken by both Drywrite’s Fleabag and the Royal Exchange’s There Has Possibly Been an Incident. Fleabag, written and performed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, starts off as a light-hearted and funny monologue, as a young woman talks with a refreshing lack of inhibition about her love of “slutty pizzas”, porn and threesomes. But gradually it becomes clear to the audience that her gratuitous frankness and cynicism are self-destructive, a means of avoiding facing up to something traumatic. It was performed with such insight by Waller-Bridge that the presence of a script was soon forgotten.
There Has Possibly Been an Incident was a serious, contemplative piece delivered at a low steady pace into microphones by Nigel Barrett, Gemma Brockis and Yusra Warsama. The themes of political upheaval, the macroscopic repercussions of microscopic actions and the human capacity for good and evil emerged gradually from Chris Thorpe’s layered, intricately worded script, demanding the kind of attention from a festival audience that, perhaps understandably, many weren’t willing to give.
There were no such problems for Ben Moor’s Each of Us. This one-man show holds a surreal mirror up to our world, reflecting a character who works as a corporate thwarter (aiming to reduce his company’s productivity), pursues a doomed romance with a woman named Radium and enjoys a live football game with highlights edited by David Lynch. Moor’s delivery was soft and charming, threatening at times to float off into quirkiness but always grounding itself with acute real-life observations. His final statement that “A rich soul is the one that shares its wealth with others” was the most artfully set up and moving conclusion of the festival.
Then there were the shows that opted for full-blown spectacle and audience interaction. The BAC’s Gym Party took a while to establish its theme of competition, and then laid it on pretty thick. But the piece redeemed itself with three characters who managed to arouse exclamations of both contempt and empathy from the audience through their semi-improvised games, and who also made us semi-complicit in the unsettling climax.
In terms of spectacle, though, National Theatre Wales’s Praxis Makes Perfect was the hit of the festival, and the second, after Kitson, to pack out the arena. Its telling of the life story of Italian leftwing activist and publisher Giacomo Feltrinelli was largely redundant. What the crowd came for were the live band, and the chance to hide copies of Dr Zhivago from Soviet operatives, to participate in swinging sixties happenings and to witness a basketball game between Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Feltrinelli (no really).
Closing proceedings on Sunday evening was Kitson’s After the Beginning, Before the End – the theatre arena’s third sellout. If anything highlighted the contrast between rough and polished, it was this. Here was Kitson with a plan. In a brief 90 minutes he explored relationships, isolation and the fallibility of memory and hilariously subverted fatuous truisms with his sharp insights. It was an engaging and personal piece to end an event whose organisers had plainly thought hard and intelligently about the kind of theatre that works for a festival crowd.
For a report on pop at Latitude, visit www.ft.com/music