Henham Park, Southwold, Sunrise Coast, Suffolk
First on my schedule was Stand Up Diggers All, an outdoor performance by Pentabus Theatre that formed part of their season of plays on rural protest. A rectangular patch of earth near what the festival calls the Faraway Forest, was taken over by the company for an appropriately earthy, not-so-very-far-away-at-all story of the common people trying to take back their rightful share. We get the story of the mid-17th century Diggers movement, in which lower-class people took it upon themselves to start working patches of common land (essentially to take back the power to feed and support themselves). Interwoven with it is a modern tale of a rebellious schoolgirl who, to seize some power over her own future, works out an exact calculation of what portion of the earth is rightly hers based on every person on the planet being allowed an equal share, measures out this small patch on the school playing field and starts to grow things on it.
The story is told in fairly broad brush-strokes, with its large cast supplying the right level of rousing energy and a resourcefulness that the Diggers would have admired: before the start of the show they make a mini tour of the nearby forest, playing music and shouting generally about, to gather up more of an audience. The parallels between past and present protests are so clear to see that they don’t need emphasising and thankfully the play resists spelling them out; the point is made quite clearly enough in Elizabeth Freestone’s direction. As the play goes on, the Diggers of the past, and the modern followers of the movement that the schoolgirl unwittingly starts, begin to work wordlessly alongside and with each other on the same square of ground.
Some interesting points are made about authorities’ reaction to the protest: the Diggers are initially on amicable terms with the local lord of the manor, who even condescendingly lends them tools, but the lord’s friendliness dries up as soon as the movement shows signs of expanding—printing their aims and principles in pamplets—basically, having political will. Small-scale, peaceful rebellion is fine, apparently, as long as there’s no chance of it being imitated elsewhere. And similarly, in the modern age, the local councillor suggests that the peaceful protesters who have begun to follow the girl’s example and taken a patch of earth for themselves are paving the way for mob rule and anarchy. It’s a fine and timely play; a moderate call for a civilised revolution.
A whole other level of crazy was Look Left Look Right’s Not Another Musical, a ramshackle presentation of four short new musicals co-written by Morgan Lloyd-Malcolm and Katie Lyons. Two of the four stood out particularly. The opener, set in a US therapeutic retreat for surviving victims of Jigsaw (the sadistic killer from the Saw films), maintained a steady level of madcap black humour as the victims described the very minor wrongdoings that had led Jigsaw to disfigure them, and as two of them fell ridiculously, forbiddenly in love. And the finale was a brilliant ripping-apart of reality TV talent shows: the fictional (though scarily close to reality) Britain’s Strictly Got the X-Voice contest saw various characters parade their disabilities / unfortunate life circumstances in front of a live audience to get the sympathy vote, but it was the talented monkey—a literal monkey—doing it all for his mum that got Simon Cowell spinning with delight.
Also pretty clever was The Internet: the musical, which imagined the various big-hitter web sites, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn etc, as actual people, attending as guests a party hosted by Google (of course). Friends Reunited was a dowdy 19th-century relic, trying to keep up with the times; MySpace was a mad janitor who longed to regain the credibility he’d once had. Performances throughout were fearless, the cast obviously having a ball themselves. Special mention must go to Steven Webb, who played both the singing monkey and Facebook as a cool Californian hipster dude, and Liz Richardson who shone in many roles including a brilliantly sullen Sarah Lund (from The Killing) in the slightly less successful but still enjoyable pastiche of the methods of TV detectives that completed the quartet.
Latitude can also persuade some truly excellent dance and circus companies to drop in to Henham Park and adapt their existing performances to rougher terrain. So, phenomenal Australian circus company Circa brought its current show to the theatre tent, making do with a white plastic cover over the audience-trampled central stage and narrow walkways between their bare feet and the mud below. And suddenly we were in a different world, one in which it seemed that bodies had no limits and flying was but a casual habit.
I could spend hours describing the six performers’ physical accomplishments, but I wouldn’t do them justice and in any case it’s what you’d expect of a company with this reputation. The more surprising thing was the great style of it all. Every sequence in the show told a story, and those stories were quite often about individual awkwardness and the difficulty of making connections with other people. It was quite a thing to watch performers exhibit such a degree of control and precision in order to tell stories of clumsiness, hesitation and doubt. Their limbs flung themselves out in random directions, as if with minds of their own; they gyrated desperately to the strains of “Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps”, as if (within the story being told) they were possessed with the need to impress each other. In fact they impressed us, the audience, with the utmost ease. A mere flick of the ankle, a twist of the wrist, and suddenly they were airborne and the next moment standing one-legged on each other’s shoulders, or even heads; and they looked at us with a flicker of a smile. It was devastatingly cool.
As dark gathered and the paths became hard to distinguish from the mud, we gathered outside the Faraway Forest for an impromptu pagan parade—well why not? Les Enfants Terribles have produced this sort of outdoor / immersive / walkabout / experiential theatre at Latitude before, but this time they had the run of the festival site, and so they recruited an audience to be the pagan leader’s temporary acolytes, complicit in following the chosen virgin down to her sacrificial death. The sacrifice was carried out down by the river, after we had wound our way slowly through the festival site to the sound of drums and the performers’ whoops and screams.
Of course no human blood was spilt; but the actors walked neatly across the lake (on a just-submerged walkway), and a large wicker figure was positioned on the surface of the water and rather impressively set alight. It was short on narrative but big on atmosphere, with superb design of costumes and make-up, and of the various banners and totems that the performers carried. I’m not quite sure what demon we were exorcising—or paying tribute to—by the burning of the wicker man, but I admired it as both a pleasingly gothic and rather a cathartic ritual for us all to be part of.
And then back to the theatre tent for another dark story – this one with rather more narrative but just as much violence: Brad Bird’s Billy Chickens is a Psychopath Superstar, produced by Theatre503. A determinedly unhinged satire, it presented its protagonist, Billy Chickens, as a mad anti-hero for the media age: a foul-mouthed failed boxer with serious anger issues, recently out of prison for having murdered a woman, and planning to profit thoroughly from the circus of media interest surrounding him. Through various conversations—with a one-night-stand, with a TV interviewer, and, when no-one else is around, speaking to the audience directly—he tells us his sordid history of childhood abuse from his father, a youth mis-spent in the boxing ring, his turning to competitive eating competitions when the boxing didn’t work out, and losing the love of his life (she skipped off blithely to have sex with a more interesting range of men). The murder of a random girl seems almost incidental in his view: just another hurdle in a life strewed with them.
As comic scripts go, it’s pretty high-octane, relentless, and irresistible. Among many sharp lines, I particularly enjoyed the one-night-stand’s reaction to Billy, the morning after, calling her a slut: “that”, she spits, “was a lucky guess”. You could argue that some of the play’s targets—our society’s obsession with instant celebrity, our morbid fascination with the psychology of killers, and need to feed their infamy with our constant attention—are easy ones. But it’s all done with such verve, you can’t not be impressed. And there are some very specific touches that make it a cut above your lazy satirical fare.
Billy, having finally decided to commit suicide after courting fame hasn’t helped him one bit, decides he’ll make his death a “classy” affair with tons of cash and cocaine, and a prostitute, laid out in the next room. But he doesn’t have access to cash or drugs, he has to make do with a handful of coins and some instant coffee granules. Meanwhile the prostitute isn’t bothered that he’s about to top himself, she’s just excited to have met someone famous. The production complements the script very well, with a clown-like silent chorus of stagehands constantly helping the action along, telling the audience when to laugh and applaud in the sitcom-style flashback to Billy’s childhood, and smiling nervously as they hold up a “Modesty Screen” to protect us from the view of Billy mid-coitus. Very smart, very un-apologetic: very much its own beast. Not a bad model for a Latitude show.