Playing the field

Theatre is taking centre stage at music festivals this summer. They’re the perfect forum for intrepid drama, says Alice Jones.
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Ah, summer. Season of Shakespeare’s Globe, open-air Shakespeare and Shakespeare in the park/forest/ gardens. July is high season for al-fresco drama and big, breezy business for the Bard. The (largely un-air conditioned) West End winds down its big openings and fringe companies make last-minute preparations for the big Edinburgh hurrah in August. Filling the gap, and hoping, ever hoping, to capitalise on the Great British Summer, come the stalwarts of the season.

Shakespeare’s Globe kicks things off, followed swiftly by the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park and the marvellous Minack on the Cornish cliffs. Meanwhile, the curtain rises on myriad performances in Oxford colleges and medieval castles, stately homes and cricket clubs. Theatre-goers and keen picnickers alike grab their hampers and rugs and prepare to huddle while praying that an aeroplane won’t fly over during a crucial piece of iambic pentameter.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that – it’s an annual pleasure. But where should the theatre-goer looking for an avant-garde fix in the great outdoors go? Apart from Kneehigh and Wildworks, who regularly weave their magic in Cornish mines and Tyneside docks, there’s a lack of non-traditional theatrical fare in the summer repertoire. Unless, that is, you count the festivals.

Ever since Latitude arrived on the scene in 2006 with literary, theatre, comedy and poetry tents pitched alongside the main music stage, festivals have widened their remit from guitar bands and beer. Some divergences are obvious: comedy and rock‘n’roll are natural bedfellows and it was only a matter of time before writers broke out of their well-attended book fests to meet their younger fans. Theatre has been slower to take to the fields – for years there was little more than street performers juggling chainsaws and late-night burlesque – but this year’s line-up is the most sophisticated yet.

Just as music fans use festivals as a one-stop shop to catch up with their favourite big bands at the same time as seeking out the next big thing, now theatre fans can do the same. This month alone, at Latitude, The Secret Garden Party, Camp Bestival and Port Eliot, there are specially commissioned works from the RSC, the Lyric Hammersmith and the Bush Theatre playing alongside brand new plays from some of our finest playwriting talent, including Jack Thorne and Joel Horwood. In fields from Cornwall to Suffolk, there are opportunities to sample the work of thrusting young companies, The Factory, Filter, Paines Plough and nabokov and to meet old hands Stephen Frears, Jerusalem playwright Jez Butterworth (at Port Eliot), Peter Hall and Mark Ravenhill (at Latitude) under canvas – and out of the West End.

When Latitude launched, the theatre tent was a 150-person marquee of the kind you might find showcasing prize-winning jams at a country fete. Inside, the Royal Court presented Angry Now, rehearsed readings of 12 mini state-of-the-nation plays by upcoming playwrights, while nabokov programmed nine hours of new playlets.

Fast forward to 2010 and the theatre tent has grown into a big top with a thrust stage and space for 650 people (though the numbers cramming in could reach 1000) on raked auditorium seating. “I’ve booked more theatre than anything else this year,” says Tania Harrison, arts curator of this weekend’s festival. “Almost as much as music. The theatre tents are always full. I remember when Arcade Fire headlined in 2007, all the other tents emptied out because so many people wanted to see them but the theatre arena was still full.”

The tent is in the Faraway Forest, but this year’s programme, featuring over 50 productions, will spread its theatrical tendrils throughout the festival with performances on the banks of the lake, in the far reaches of the wood and across the site. Festivals offer ample opportunity for quirky, site-specific works. Tangled Feet’s I Confess, a neat one-on-one storytelling piece set in a confession booth will travel to both The Secret Garden Party and Latitude. Metra Theatre Company will perform its intimate take on 3 Sisters on a barge on the lake at The Secret Garden Party, offering weary festival-goers an hour of tea, cake and Chekhovian reminiscence. And at Port Eliot and Camp Bestival, Gavin Turk’s House of Fairytales has storytelling and theatre for all ages.

For the novelty-hungry festival-goer, theatre can offer a different kind of musical experience, with the advantage of seats and shelter. This summer, rapper Akala (brother of Ms Dynamite) is taking his brilliant hip-hop Shakespeare to Camp Bestival and Little Bulb Theatre reprises its “epic folk opera”, Sporadical, a charming nautical hit at last year’s Forest Fringe for The Secret Garden Party. At Latitude, the Bush Theatre will showcase a new musical, The Great British Country Fete, by the stand-up Russell Kane, while the Lyric is collaborating with the band London Snorkelling Team for the Tempest-inspired The Island. There are also revivals for English Touring Theatre’s Lovesong, a one-man show by Ché Walker which stars the British soul singer Omar, Birmingham Rep’s grime theatre piece 8Sixteen32 and Cartoon de Salvo’s Pub Rock, last seen in a Hammersmith boozer, pops up at Latitude’s working men’s club, The Razzle.

They’re likely to go down very well, but music is far from the only story for festival theatre. “A lot of the companies believe that people just want to see comedy or music-oriented theatre. I think people want a balance,” says Harrison, who persuaded the Royal Court to bring Mark Ravenhill’s challenging Shoot/Get Treasure/ Repeat cycle to Suffolk in 2008. This year the playwright will perform his creepy monologue The Experiment, originally commissioned for the Terror season at Southwark Playhouse. “You’ve got music and comedy already, people like a darker side. They want their brains to be stimulated. To just put on pop-up theatre would be incredibly insulting. This is a very discerning audience.”

Unlike headline bands who jet from festival to festival, wheeling out their greatest hits for a crowd-pleasing set, theatre-makers can use the freedom of the festival setting to take risks and showcase their most innovative work. If the punters don’t like it, they’ll simply drift away to another tent. In previous years, Latitude has hosted new writing from Joe Penhall, Polly Stenham

and Abi Morgan and their commissions and premieres have led to bigger things. Following its stop-off at Latitude in 2008, Look Left Look Right’s The Caravan, a verbatim piece about the 2007 floods performed in a caravan, parked up in Sloane Square for a run at the Royal Court. Meanwhile, the Bush’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover was revived after the festival in London, and later became the theatre’s Christmas show.

This year’s new commissions include nabokov’s It’s About Time, a musical by Joel Horwood with songs by Arthur Darvill; Tiny Volcanoes, Laurence Wilson’s play about broken Britain, a co-production between Paines Plough and Liverpool Everyman; and Playhouse and Skins alumnus Jack Thorne will also unveil his latest play, about heroin addiction, with Eyebrow Productions.

The RSC also returns to Latitude for a third year with a specially commissioned play by Kneehigh collaborator Carl Grose. Their previous festival offerings have been by Anthony Neilson and Phil Porter. This year’s, The Thirteen Midnight Challenges of Angelus Diablo, is a late-night, infernal countdown to midnight. Shakespeare remains deliberately off the menu. “We’re tapping into a completely new audience,” says Pippa Hill, literary manager of the RSC. “We can show the sense of humour of the RSC, which people don’t expect. It explodes the doublet-and-hose stereotype.”

For some companies, performing in a field to distracted weekenders can be an invigorating task. “The average rehearsal time at the RSC is six to 12 weeks – last year we had four days,” says Hill. “We only found out that the stage was in the round when we got there so we had to re-block the whole show in a field. It’s incredibly exciting, a shot of energy goes through the company.”

For others, festivals are the natural home for their creative process. The Factory, an experimental theatre collective whose deconstructed Hamlet sells out on word-of-mouth alone (thanks, in no small part, to high-profile guest spots from Ewan McGregor and Josh Hartnett) is a regular on the summer circuit. “I didn’t know how we were going to get people at a festival to follow Hamlet for three hours,” says producer Liam Evans-Ford. “But at Latitude we had 300 people and at Secret Garden Party we did it at 2am and still had 150.” For a company specialising in pop-up performances which frequently spill out of the venue and which allows the audience to cast the show and provide the props, the anarchy of a festival is the perfect setting. “We learned just how robust our actors could be. You have to be even less precious about the work you’re doing and embrace all of the crazy things that are going on around you. The excitement is taking theatre out into the festival arena – and learning not to fight against all the other elements.” This year, The Factory is taking its new-writing experiment, Round 2, to Latitude and The Secret Garden Party, with a company of 40 actors and “as many plays as they can learn” (around 30 or 40). For the half hour “bouts”, a list of 8 playlets are chalked up on a board; the audience then decides which six they want to see, who they want to play each part and even who gets to speak first.

There will be Shakespeare too: it is the Great British Summer, after all. But in the case of Filter, a company which, like The Factory, thrives on the organised chaos of a festival, it will be far from traditional. Their exhilarating Twelfth Night, commissioned for a three-night run as part of the RSC’s Complete Works festival and still running today, was conceived in just two-and-a-half weeks. Now it’s the turn of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be retooled into a one-hour romp to be performed in the woods at Latitude with a four-piece band. “We can’t really get over the fact that a music festival wants theatre. It’s amazing,” says Sean Holmes, the Lyric’s artistic director who has just started the 10-day process of directing The Dream. “Filter is quite suited to it really. You can just rock up and do it.” That’s the spirit.