Review: Latitude Festival

Published in What's on Stage on July 18, 2016

To Latitude Festival, where theatre can be found everywhere, from full-scale auditorium to crowded fields, from wooded glades to wooden sheds. Encounters range from the touchingly intimate to the sweatily communal, as befits a festival.

But up against a packed line-up of music, poetry, comedy, and lounging in the best weather we’ve had all year, the festival’s theatre offerings have plenty of competition.

This was in evidence in Les Enfants Terribles’ new show, The Fantastical Flying Exploratory Laboratory, a family-friendly show that takes place in a busy field, in an indigo flying machine winched up in the air. But even their signature madcap, zany style struggles at times to really connect with the open-air crowd, with sound bleed from other stages and the general ebb and flow of a festival to compete with.

This new show, a ‘stand-alone side-quel’ to their previous production The Marvellous Imaginary Menagerie, is Jules Verne meets Heath Robinson. Dr Latitude (a coincidence, I think) is a Victorian explorer cum botanist cum alchemist – a “bottomist”, if you please. Her journey in search of four magic ingredients which make up the elixir of life involves tackling juggling monkeys, battling a giant Venus fly trap (evocatively made of green ostrich feathers), and milking sullen teenage rainbow clouds.

Indeed, it’s all rainbow-bright colourful, and enjoyably daft. There are pop culture references from Mission Impossible and 2001: a Space Odyssey to David Bowie and Daft Punk, but I suspect most of it goes over the heads of younger viewers.

Other shows get more up close and personal. Everything By My Side by Fernando Rubio, part of LIFT, puts seven beds in a field and invites each audience member to hop in with an actor. When you’re sleeping in a tent, it’s an appealing offer…

Slowly, whispered face to face and with eye contact sustained, are a few vague vignettes, “moments” when you were alone, or felt joy or its absence. There’s an intimacy here that is both touching and, being British, a tad awkward; it’s rare to stare at a stranger so close that you can see where suncream’s collected in their pores, or notice the shape of their armpit crease. You wonder what they see in you.

Such tender proximity lends a strange power during the brief, 15-minute encounter, but it vanishes like a dream the minute you get out of bed. Similarly, Seance is a thrill while you’re in it, but ultimately as insubstantial as the faked spiritualism it sends up.

Twenty people at a time go into a long, narrow shipping container, put on headphones and are plunged into darkness. Glen Neath and David Rosenberg are pioneers of binaural sound art, and it works a spooky treat here. Plunged into total darkness, we’re instructed to put our hands on the table, and not to remove them for fear of unleashing a spirit. It seems as if a medium is speaking to different people in the group, around the table… and things get darker and more sinister, voices whispering right in your ear.

It’s good fun, and occasionally genuinely unnerving, until it descends from horror movie riff to cliche; a roaring demon made me smirk more than quake. This feels like a fairground ride – a tech-savvy, classy fairground ride, but still.

There’s more haunting in Teatro Delusio. Familie Floz’s show is a highlight: a silent backstage comedy, performed by three men using over-sized masks to parade a whole cast of 29 characters, from high falutin’ opera directors to mutinous ballet dancers to grooving cleaners, all overseen by an eerily menacing little girl ghost.

The actors’ manners and mannerisms are so precise that no matter how brief a moment we spend with a character, we understand and invest in them. But what starts as a gentle, easy-watching display of sensitive, subtle, physical skill – and some jolly, silly slapstick – soon turns into a story of bitter rivalries, lost dreams and missed opportunities.

I fall hard for three stage technicians who we come to know, thwarted in life offstage, and controlled somehow by that malign spirit. Moving stuff, which will be at Edinburgh this summer.

As will Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Bucket List. Currently a work-in-progress, I’m sure any snags in slightly scrappy movement sequences and mimes will be smoothed. What surely can’t be changed, however, is the main problem: the story.

This devised piece follows the teenage daughter of a Mexican activist, shot while protesting against poor working conditions in factories and cancer-inducing pollution in their town following an American-Mexican trade agreement. The girl decides to take revenge – by killing everyone on a list who her mother was trying to hold accountable. This goes right up to the US and Mexican presidents.

Several wildly improbable coincidences are required for this plot to work, and these soon tip into the absurd: she just happens to get entered into a chess championship where the prize is to play those two presidents? How convenient! Various other irksomely improbable twists follow.

More troubling, however, is that the notion that a teenager might systematically murder a bunch of factory owners, CEOs and presidents – that’s assassination, not usually considered heroic – goes completely unchallenged. Neither is it served up as a Kill Bill style cartoonish revenge thriller. As a howl against capitalism’s dehumanising excesses, it’s odd as well as ineffectual.

Thank heavens for Gob Squad. The four-piece bring their Super Night Shot show to Latitude: an hour before it begins, they set four cameras rolling and rampage around the site, trying to find a romantic spot for the ‘hero’ to smooch a complete stranger at. We watch all four streams simultaneously, the screen split, sound switching; the final shots are the actors running up to the theatre.

Usually performed in cities at night, perhaps this sometimes has more edge – most people they interact with are very up for the random interactions and spontaneous silliness, with small children proving particularly willing accomplices to a man dancing in a glittery onesie and animal mask.

There’s no real depth to this exercise, but it’s the perfect marriage of space and time and audience, and works an absolute treat at a festival. And there’s something truly joyous about watching these open-hearted actors interact with, tease and embrace the people and the spaces that make up the festival. It’s a one-off, in and of its moment, capturing that oft-spoken of but elusive thing: the spirit of a festival.

Where next?