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Latitude Festival 2009 Reviews (3)

Catastrophic Sex Music
By Bysshe Coffey
Mercury Theatre

22-year-old Bysshe Coffey wrote this piece at an even more insanely young age; it premiered at Colchester's Mercury and then at Theatre503 earlier this year. It must have seemed logical to then bring it to Latitude, it being an experiment in a new type of spontaneous and musical form, bringing comparisons to free-form jazz.

But the context of performance weighs heavily against this difficult and wordy piece. In a dark nocturnal cellar of a theatre, you can imagine Coffey's poetic riffing on themes of paganism, classical heroism and sensual abandon packing quite a punch. But during daylight in a packed festival tent with constant traffic of people in and out on all sides, the decision for the actors to perform unamplified (I saw no other performance which didn't use microphones) seems a huge misstep. The drama of the piece is its language, but with the two actors shouting to be heard above the noise leaking through from the band outside, we start to wonder if, ironically, out there is pagan sensual abandon while in here is mere wordy excess.

But all this is circumstantial. Taken on its own terms the play has some tantalising images. It certainly starts entertainingly when a stage manager issues a stern warning about the adult content - "Get the children out - get them out now".

It's a duologue which gives us not so much a narrative as a stream of ideas. Loosely speaking, a couple speak of venturing - "wearing their hot flesh in the twilight" - into a fantasy liminal world of bohemian living, inhabited by the Theseus of Greek myth and by desperate artists "slashing the disease out of canvases". The shiny and the seedy are intertwined - the bohemian quarter lies "under a grey sick sky", and the woman finds herself sexually exploited by the debauched crowd. There are echoes of the tension between Apollo and Dionysus, reason and sensuality that Shaffer frequently explored. But the aim of the piece seems not to be to use words to convey clear ideas, but rather for a tangle of free-association that will engage us viscerally above all.

As I said this is especially difficult in a festival staging, but I'm not sure about the intention as a whole - it seems a waste for a piece to be so steeped in mythology and yet to say so little intelligible about human nature. Theseus's world is described as full of the "murmurings of ideology" - the playwright is much less interested in the ideology than in the murmuring.

Corinne Salisbury

Here Lies Mary Spindler
Created by director Elizabeth Freestone, RSC Movement Director Struan Leslie, playwright Phil Porter, sound designer Adrienne Quartly, designer Tom Scutt and the Suffolk Trial Society
Royal Shakespeare Company

The RSC staged a zombie attack at Latitude last year, and this year are determined to creep theatregoers out further with this late-night recreation of a 17th-century witch trial. It makes use of the striking fact that in Henham Park itself - the festival site - the archaeologists from the Suffolk Trial Society have uncovered a mass grave which they believe to be the executions from one single trial in 1645. So a "spokeswoman" from the Trial Society matter-of-factly informs us of the history of witch killings and the various particular rituals employed - and in between her updates, we shunt back into the past where Matthew Hopkins, self-proclaimed Witchfinder General, is conducting the trial.

Through its course three women are abused in a number of horrific ways: tortured, branded, searched all over their bodies for the extra "teats" from which it was believed their familiars hid and suckled. Of course we cannot help thinking of The Crucible when it comes to the interrogations themselves, as Hopkins uses everything the women say as proof of their guilt - even the fact of Laura Elphinstone's heartbreakingly vulnerable young woman being afraid to look him in the face. But the piece powerfully brings out the superstitions of the period, partly driven by the desperate mortality rate: witchcraft could be "proved" simply by the fact that children had died in a woman's proximity. It also gives a sense of the fear of the feminine: one of the women, giving a false confession, speaks of the devil's familiars nibbling and sucking her in secret places, to the disgust of the righteous clergyman.

The other chilling element is the modern-day Trial Society spokeswoman gradually being infected by the events of the past, something like voodoo or like stigmata: itching when the women of the past burn, seeming to gag when they choke. Past injustices manifest themselves through her in a way that goes beyond her control - it's a dramatic device that allows the action to break the bounds of mere history.

The one unintentional shock I have to mention came early on: Mary stands in a long cotton gown, blindfold, two inches from a live candle flame which is on the point of lapping her hem. A shout of horror from the audience alerted the actress as she seemed seconds away from catching alight. Theatre at Latitude is very health-and-safety-light, but this was a clear danger that put our hearts in our mouths. This show was a thriller in every way.

Corinne Salisbury

Writers include John Donnelly, Ashanti Dhawan, Matt Hartley, Joel Horwood, Phil Porter, Penelope Skinner

Of all the ADD-friendly shows at the festival, this one takes the prize. I also enjoyed it so much I'm sure I ruptured something. DryWrite premiered this concept in an East London pub earlier in the year, and now recreate at Latitude the same brawly, spontaneous atmosphere.

It's ingeniously simple. They perform twice over the weekend: each performance features four short scenes of fights, all of them beginning verbally and becoming physical. At the start of the show every audience member is given four simple coloured paper hats. Before each scene begins we are introduced via the booming PA system to each of the characters it will involve - they strut onto stage, pose and flex and grimace like Mickey Rourke, and we don a hat of a certain colour to "cast our vote" on that particular character coming out on top. Of course this is before we know anything about the nature of each fight, so it's interesting in theory to wonder what makes us side with one character over another purely on first glance. Do the women go for the women? Do we back the scrawnier man to try and predict the unpredictable? Which of the nuns looks the most muscular? As it is though, there are few easily apparent trends. All our attention really is focused on screaming out our support of whoever we have arbitrarily chosen to back.

This is theatre for closet wrestling fans, quite excessively happy to suddenly be encouraged to watch drama and make noise. As an experience it's infectious - but I fear not to be too often repeated, as only certain contexts allow it to work. I also wonder how long before the concept becomes stale - once you have seen it I doubt you'd feel the need to experience it again - unless the company push it in a new direction.

In summary, we have two nuns attending a school reunion and discovering that their schoolmate of the time, who inspired both of their religious conversions, now views them with contempt. A man tries to hastily get rid of a woman after a one-night-stand, but his girlfriend bursts in on them. A jilted boyfriend challenges his ex-girlfriend's new lover to a fight to win her, which he will video for her to prove his devotion. But the final scene has an unexpected spike. Two old friends, one gay one straight, emerge from a gay club late at night, the straight one distraught having broken up with his girlfriend, and in a moment of drunken confusion makes a sexual advance on his friend. The ensuing fracas is him being fought off by his friend, who is trying only to beat sense into him. There's no-one for us to cheer for, the emotions of the piece are too true to make for easy side-taking. And the ending is horrifically unexpected and downbeat. We stop shouting long enough to think about what we have been doing. It's a canny achievement. But for all that, the show overall is too enjoyable for us not to emerge with smiles all over our faces. Guilty though they may be.

Corinne Salisbury

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©Peter Lathan 2009