Suffolk’s Latitude Festival was in its fifth outing this year, and theatre companies bringing work to the event have started to adapt to the specific challenges of staging work in a tent, in a field, to audiences who haven’t specifically paid to see your production, while loud music plays on a stage a few hundred metres away.
(L-R): John Nicholson (Tick Tock), Sandy Grierson (Angelus Diablo), Dominic Lawton (Benedict) and Julia Innocenti (Mojo) in The 13 Midnight Challenges of Angelus Diablo at Latitude Photo: Lisa Spink/RSC
The first - and most practical - pre-requisite that nearly all the companies have taken on board is the use of microphones. In previous years, some shows were completely incomprehensible because they were drowned out by background noise. No such problems this year - even for the excellent un-amplified production of Into the Little Hill by The Opera Group, which showcased a contemporary operatic re-telling of the Pied Piper without the need for amplification.
A more subtle change was that an increasing number of theatre companies seem to be specifically tailoring their shows to a festival crowd. There proved to be a fine line, though, between carefully selecting shows that reflect (or subvert) a company’s theatrical identity while also suiting the Latitude set-up, and simply pandering to the perceived desires of a festival audience.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s The 13 Midnight Challenges of Angelus Diablo (written by Carl Grose and directed by Lu Kemp) fell firmly into the former camp. This hilarious tale of an unsuccessful actor who sells his soul to the devil in return for an acting part managed to deliciously send up the public perception of the RSC. It also benefited from a smattering of audience participation and a superb, camped-up central performance by Sandy Grierson. What really stood it in good stead, though, was a robust narrative - something also present in the other two highlights in the Theatre Arena: Theatre503’s Epic and Lyric Hammersmith and Filter’s reimagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Epic by Matt Hartley both opened and closed the festival in the Theatre Arena. It’s a big, sprawling new play and a hugely ambitious choice for Latitude. For a start, it has a cast of 16 and significant requirements in terms of lighting, sound and costume. But it proved an inspired choice.
It tells the story of a newly-married couple - the husband is fighting in Afghanistan, while the wife worries for his survival back home in the UK. But what makes the story unique is that the wife, Jen, is psychic and can feel when her husband is in danger. What must have sounded like an unlikely proposition on paper proves to be a gripping and profoundly moving love story, thanks to Hartley’s well-observed script, Paul Robinson’s dynamic direction and an excellent cast led by Scarlet Johnson and Tom Stuart. This show definitely deserves a future life.
The Lyric’s remix of The Dream is perhaps a more obvious choice for a festival crowd, but should also prove to have a longer life elsewhere. This truncated, music-heavy version of Shakespeare’s work - in the style of Filter’s earlier production of Twelfth Night - is still a little rough around the edges, but there’s definitely the beginnings of a re-invigoration of one of Shakespeare’s most familiar works. Mark Benton, who is pulled out of the audience apparently randomly to join the company, makes an excellent Bottom, while Filter’s irreverent approach is perfectly suited to the world of fairies and rude mechanicals.
While The Lyric’s effort showed that a musical approach could be a sensible option for this audience, Nabokov’s It’s About Time (written by Joel Horwood with music by Arthur Darville) revealed the dangers of trying to design a show with an audience in mind.
This musical tells the story of a band reforming for a gig at Latitude, as a stag-do surprise for one of its members. Unfortunately, the narrative is gossamer-thin and the music derivative - a surprise disappointment from a talented creative team. The Bush Theatre’s The Great British Country Fete was also a let-down, especially in the wake of the theatre’s previous offerings at the festival. Again, a weak narrative proved its undoing, despite some catchy songs.
English Touring Theatre’s Lovesong, meanwhile, was a far more impressive work but still didn’t quite hit the mark. Written and directed by Che Walker with music by Omar Lyefook, who also performs, it is a pensive, downbeat monologue with songs. Despite an excellent one-man performance by Lyefook and some great music, the delicate narrative is lost in the demanding surroundings of the arena. It would certainly work better in a more intimate space.
Not everyone went musical, though. Paines Plough’s co-production with Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse of Tiny Volcanoes by Laurence Wilson is a solid piece of agitprop about what it is to be British. The two-hander is lit up by excellent performances from Kevin Harvey and Michael Ryan, and while not altogether subtle in terms of the message it’s trying to get across, works well in a setting in which quiet consideration can be difficult.
Outside the Theatre Arena there was also some impressive work from Showstopper - The Improvised Musical, which played to enthusiastic crowds in the cabaret tent and Pleasure’s Progress by Will Tuckett - a bawdy new opera based on William Hogarth’s paintings presented by the Royal Opera House in a clearing in the Latitude woods. Elsewhere in the woods, experimental theatre group The Factory provided an unusual performance highlight with its collection of short plays performed by a group of talented actors who can play multiple parts. While the works themselves are hit and miss, the set-up provides a fascinating opportunity to see the same short play re-staged repeatedly with various permutations of cast.