Thursday 12th – Sunday 15th July 2012
There is an ever-pervasive sense of irony present at Latitude; tens of thousands of liberal lefties flock to Suffolk every year for a festival which boasts green and ethical credentials but which is run by the gigantic Festival Republic, charges £189 for a ticket and thrives on commercialism. All whilst teens flaunting their ‘alternative’ music and fashion tastes in tweed jackets jump up and down to Bon Iver in innumerable quantities, making their ‘alternative’ label redundant.
So getting away from this odd situation in the theatre tent in the forest is a necessity from time to time, just to make sure we’re not being drowned in irony. I hate to generalise, but the theatre on offer at this year’s festival seemed to fit into two camps (at least from what I saw): the truly brilliant or the truly awful.
I’ll start with the latter so I can finish this retrospective on a high note. Unfortunately, the theatre organisers at the festival seem to commission a lot of companies to do work for them without checking that these groups have created a work of quality. Though I understand it’s tough to do theatre outside whilst competing against sound from bands, Theatre Delicatessen’s Henry V included only a few actors who seemed to have been trained in projection and in any case merely resembled a low-key and lazy version of the National Theatre’s 2003 production. The Just Price of Flowers, by Stan’s Cafe, attempts to make the 2008 financial crisis more digestible and entertaining by demonstrating its similarities to tulip trading in 17th century Netherlands, but is far too long, monotonous and dull. The Brechtian techniques it uses fall flat due to this repetition and the few endearing moments can be easily overlooked due to the lack of variety. Harold in Havana, a rehearsed reading of snippets of Pinter’s work which was taken to Cuba last year and including David Bradley, Adjoa Andoh and Janie Dee, suffered from the same thing; the piece ran forty minutes over its advertised one hour running time and was simply too repetitive and indulgent to be enjoyable.
Nabokov’s Symphony was also somewhat disappointing, though it did at least remember it was in a festival setting; the production is a trio of plays written by Tom Wells, Ella Hickson and Nick Payne which uses monologue and duologue to tell stories, each of which is interspersed with original songs. The pieces improve as the evening goes on, but each is let down by an abundance of cliché (understandable for a twenty-minute play, perhaps) and shoddy sound. Look Left, Look Right’s Not Another Musical is difficult to watch for the same reasons. Though it went down well with the audience at Latitude, the tongue-in-cheek humour feels lazy and not enough work has been put in to each of the four mini-musicals to make them a genuine satire of the genre.
Aside from RashDash Theatre’s superb Set Fire to Everything, which uses song and music to comment on the difficulties of modern life, the better theatre at the festival was that which, as far as I can tell, had not been created specifically for this setting. Action to the Word’s A Clockwork Orange makes Anthony Burgess’ dreadful script work as a stylised piece of theatre, which commits completely to the all-male cast and manages to make the story relevent to our post-Soviet world. Bank Puppets’ Swamp Juice, though created for children, includes some of the most inventive and funny puppetry I’ve seen and finishes with a genuinely impressive 3D sequence. Theatre Ad Infinatum’s Translunar Paradise, which, like A Clockwork Orange and Swamp Juice, also premiered at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, is a beautiful representation of love, devoid of cliché and featuring hypnotic movement. It is ideal for a festival setting, favouring music and visual aids over speaking and wrenching us away from the madness outside the tent.
The theatrical highlight of the festival came, for me, in the unlikely White Rabbit, Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour, presented by the Gate Theatre. The play is only given to the performer, in this case Marcus Brigstocke, as they come onto stage, and is little more than a dialogue between audience, actor and author, but it is without a doubt one of the most challenging and innovative pieces of writing I’ve seen in the past year, creating drama unlike any I have ever witnessed in a theatre. For various reasons it’s difficult to go into much detail, but trust me, if you can a chance, this is a must-see.
More than anything, the theatre at Latitude 2012 raised questions about the nature of staging productions in festival environments; the productions which worked were simply well-made and thoughtful pieces. It was frustrating to watch so many companies trying to jump over hurdle six before clearing hurdle one; the work itself must first be of a high standard before trying to make it work in a specific environment. In a festival full of irony, the irony here was that the best performances came straight from conventional settings and weren’t trying hard to work amid the hubub outside, fuelling the idea that the best theatre can work anywhere.
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