How to find the best theatre at music festivals in 2017
Theatre with no ‘proper’ stage, unreserved seating and forecast rain. It’s a rotten thought – or is it? Regardless of your predisposition for the great outdoors, lots of theatre will be staged at music festivals around the country this summer, ranging from new and curious shows, to classics.
While some festivals – HighTide, Latitude – wear their theatrical credentials proudly, others hide it deep in the billing, eclipsed by the headlining bands that dominate the marketing effort. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find a rich seam of staged work threaded through the music-led programming.
Here’s our pick of the best…
The world famous one: Glastonbury Festival (June 21-25)
What’s the scoop?
After 45 years at Worthy Farm near the village of Glastonbury in Somerset, Glastonbury Festival will take a fallow year next year, so 2017 is the last chance to experience Glastonbury in its rightful setting until 2019. Three fields will host 400 theatre and circus acts in 2017, and running around the clock (the festival is world famous for its nightlife) some shows will be family-friendly, and some absolutely not. Glastonbury is sold out for 2017, but if you’re a ticket holder, expect an area entirely dedicated to theatre so big it could compete with some of the boutique festivals on this list.
The theatre line-up 2017 has yet to be announced, check the website for updates.
The Multi-Disciplinary One: Latitude (July 13-16)
What’s the scoop?
The country’s greatest multi-arts festival is as famous for its theatre as its music. For 2017, theatre sets the stage for the festival’s overarching theme, Come the Revolution. Expect the broadest and deepest examination in theatre you’ll find at a festival, and for styles to career from gig-theatre to traditional, and from spoken word to cabaret. Elsewhere, poetry, film, literature and comedy are taken as seriously as the music, each with their own major destination on the gorgeous site, with its own natural swimming lake.
Latitude has the UK’s largest theatre-to-music ratio and productions range from informal, under tree-top canopies, to shows with proper allocated seating, and fully-fledged production. Be mindful that the Theatre Arena, Latitude’s resident ‘real’ theatre, has a limited allocation so queuing 45 minutes before shows is unfortunately the only way to secure seats.
Headline show Notes of a Native Song is one of a subset of shows on social activism; it’s joined on the front line by 201 Dance Company’s Skin, and Royal Court’s Manwatching, as well as Dickie Beau’s Fruits of the Forest, a show responding to the 50 years it’s been since the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The topic will be explored further in the Cabaret tent with Desmond O’Connor’s Vive La Resistance, a comedy-cabaret with Swing Patrol leading some elements of audience dancing.
Two premieres are part of the extensive line-up. New circus pioneers Cirk La Putyka have the international premiere of Batacchio at Latitude, a modern ode to the circus and an examination in magic, acrobatics and humour, with a touch of old school glamour. Notes of a Native Song is a UK premiere by Red Cat theatre, but the show has already sold out in New York. Inspired by the writings of the activist James Baldwin, the show – by Tony award-winning writer and composer Stew – is something of a musical commentary about the Trump era, drawing on the Black Lives Matter movement.
London theatres appearing at Latitude 2017 include The Old Vic, which stages Charlie Fink: Cover My Tracks, a contemporary folk tale with the Noah and The Whale front man which is sure to sell out. Don’t miss Ovalhouse’s The Believers Are But Brothers, a one-man show exploring the crisis of masculinity through the lens of extremism in the digital world. And UK dance powerhouse Sadler’s Wells return to the Waterfront stage, which floats atop the site’s centralised lake.
Black Honey Company will also be dialling up the politics with Hot Brown Honey, their black politics-infused show which traverses from 20s hedonism to hip hop, rallying against stereotypes by way of dance, poetry, comedy and circus.
Some other highlights include Opera North, which will sing below the canopy in the Faraway Forest theatre zone, and a pre-Fringe appearance from Edinburgh’s Traverse, who bring Gary MnNair’s Locker Room Talk, a verbatim piece about Trump. Or, lighten the political load by seeing Cat and Mouse by Paul Barritt, who worked with 1927 on their hit show Golem. Expect a similarly uplifting show about cartoons that puts animation centre-stage.
It’s impossible to do Latitude’s ambitious programming justice in writing. An unplanned visit to the Faraway Forest will result in intimate outdoors productions beckoning you in; or go an hour before key shows to secure your seats for the bigger shows, with more of a formal element.
The posh one: Wilderness (August 3-6)
What’s the scoop? Wilderness is all wild swimming, yoga at the water’s edge and luxurious, banquet-style feasting. Some of London’s most head-turning restaurants like the Chiltern Firehouse famously serve sit-down dinners here. Alongside the music, there’s much emphasis placed on a stirring theatre line up, and besides Latitude, Wilderness is your next best festival bet in terms of both the quantity and variety of shows on offer.
This year, Camden People’s Theatre present two new productions, All The Right Notes, a collaborative piece curated by DJ and journalist Joe Muggs, which celebrates the space in which music and theatre collide, and Big Bang 8, a melting pot of innovative new pieces of writing exploring everything from black rhinos to racial segregation, by way of “a short afro-futurist history of the universe”.
Immersive theatre specialists Rogue Theatre present Rogue Tales from Wild Places at Wilderness 2017, which will be more of an impressive visual spectacle than nail-biting piece of drama. This piece of physical theatre uses dance and acrobatics to bring the tale of Moon, Queen of The Night Skies, to life outdoors, under the night sky, at the festival.
At The Atrium, Sadler’s Wells present new work across a variety of dance disciplines, including ballet, salsa, street dance and tap, and multi award-winning Company Wayne MacGregor will perform excerpts from two new dance works, Far, inspired by the controversial 18th Century age of enlightenment, and Entity.
Also scheduled for 2017 is Letters Live, a set of enlivened dramatic retellings of actual letters read by relative strangers (the London shows have featured celebrities such as Benedict Cumberbatch reading out letters). The show throws a nostalgic new light on letter writing, a method of communication that is underused and forgotten by modern generations.
There are tens of other fsringe acts, spanning comedy, theatre, circus, burlesque and more, but a final pinnacle not to miss will be National Theatre’s screening of Amadeus, the five star-rated production from the Olivier.
The family one: Standon Calling (July 27-30)
What’s the scoop?
This boutique festival, and the UK’s only festival with an outdoor swimming pool, has a career-long allegiance with the Heritage Arts Company, which curates the annual immersive theme. This year it’s Tales from the Enchanted Woodland, so expect the site to be decked out with figures from Folklorean myth and legend, and theatre plays a part too.
This year’s live theatre is yet to be announced, but the contemporary dance powerhouse that is Matthew Bourne is weighing in as an alternative to the more familiar music names playing the main stage. The award-winning director and choreographer that specialises in the male form is bringing his Re:Bourne series to Standon this year, a stirring set of innovative world class dance performances that’ll make the largely family-friendly audience think twice, and break from the music to explore something new.
The spiritual one: Shambala (August 24-27)
What’s the scoop?
Shambala is a mythical kingdom in Tibetan Buddhist ideology. And for one weekend only, it’s also a mythical kingdom in Northamptonshire. Shambala’s reputation as one of the best boutiques is propped up by its eco-friendliness; in 2016, it won the Green Operations Award in 2016 for most sustainable festival. They’re also keen purveyors of theatre.
You’ll focus your interest on two key areas: The Play House, and the rather more Vaudevillian Smoking Puppet Cabaret, which yield very different crops. Curated by Sideways Arts, The Play House is a big top masquerading as a theatre to ignite important conversations (line-up yet to be announced). The Smoking Puppet Cabaret, on the other hand, “where puppets pull the strings” is guaranteed family fun, with a dose of adult humour added as afternoon turns to night. It’s a less serious, more side-splitting melange of music, comedy, theatre and “explosions”.
The folky one: Green Man (August 17-20)
What’s the scoop?
Adrift in the meandering foothills of the Brecon Beacons, this folk music festival has all the right credentials for a harmonious weekend: marvellous scenery, a stage called Babbling Tongues for live talks and the requisite on-site artisan beer and cider festival. Theatre and performance plays a big part too, and can be found all over the site.
Green Man is investing in a new stage for the arts this year. The Back of Beyond stage will be in the shadows of the Green Man statue (which is ritualistically burned on the Sunday night every year) and promotes the work of Welsh stage schools and performance academies. Citrus Arts, Ballet Cymru and Circomedia (who are based in Bristol but foster much Welsh talent) are curating much of the line-up.
There will be a nightly collaborate ‘evening show’ which will be a devised by all three companies, and other multi-disciplinary works throughout the day will favour immersion. There’s two immersive experiences already announced, Flossy and Boo’s The Lost Library and Salon Mirela’s Glitter Parlour, and watch out for five roaming companies performing shows with elements of puppetry, theatre and circus.
Also on the line-up, Ramshaklicious is an offbeat musical comedy described as having a touch of disaster, and the Harnish-Lacey Dance company will perform an all-age show of contemporary dance.
The intimate one: Nozstock (July 21-23)
What’s the scoop?
A festival with true independent flair, Nozstock has stood the test of time and is now in its 19th year. The music line up is diverse, ranging from pop to rock to ska, and from folk to dance music. But father-daughter team Noz and Ella want to promote a festival experience for all ages and interests, and part of that is a deep connection to live, multi-disciplinary entertainment.
The Cabaret Tent will house famous and award-winning performers from the UK burlesque, comedy, cabaret and circus scenes. Performers include Jackie Clementines, a juggling and acrobatics expert fresh from a European street-show tour; The Glitter Kittens, who mix traditional cabaret with alternative burlesque, and Ursula Dares, described as a maker of theatrical drama and comic mayhem.
The youthful one: Bestival (September 7-10)
What’s the scoop?
This year it’s all change for Bestival, which has moved site from the Isle of Wight to Dorset after 13 years of encouraging festival-lovers to cross the Solent. Bestival has always actively encouraged visitors to get lost in the expansive natural habitat of Robin Hill Country Park, Isle of Wight – but newcomers needn’t worry, as the change of location won’t affect the festival’s all-round experience away from the music. Live theatre, talks and circus acts take more of a convivial approach (Shitfaced Shakespeare is a veteran). Don’t book tickets if you’re after straightforward theatre programming, but do go if fringe-style informality is your bag – shows from the likes of Shitfaced get stadium-like responses here; crowds cheer wildly, and seats go an hour or so before performances begin.
Yet to be announced, check the website for details. Also see Camp Bestival for a more grown-up family-friendly version of Bestival, which has its own theatre line-up, geared toward families.
The fully immersive one: Boomtown (August 10-13)
What’s the scoop?
Although Boomtown is solely a music festival, and doesn’t technically schedule any theatre, the whole premise of the festival is based around live performance. Be warned: Boomtown is a serious party, and its young crowd are ultimately here for a raucous weekend of partying – but if that sounds up your street, go to be immersed within theatre 24/7, as the site is the deepest examination of live immersive theatre in the world. Every year the fictional Boomtown is created, and hundreds of actors are employed to interact with guests, serving as actors in 12 key districts of the frontier-style town. If only we weren’t really in Winchester…
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