Were you to make a list of acts who may play music festivals, the Royal Shakespeare Company would not necessarily be a name which featured highly. You’d probably be right in thinking that, most of the time, one of the UK’s most heavily-subsidised and frequently conservative theatres hardly makes work which is suited to the ever-shifting, thumping revelries of a festival. This summer, however, it has cooked up something unique for Latitude in Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again, which won the George Devine Award earlier this year and refuses to be “well behaved”.
The play started life as a response to the Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s comment that “well behaved women rarely make history”, and is currently playing as part of the Midsummer Mischief season at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford. Out of the four new plays which make up that season, it’s no surprise that this is the one which has been chosen to face the crowds at Latitude; Birch has written a brash, playful piece which asks questions about gender politics within the confines of some of the most formally interesting writing I’ve seen this year.
The theatre which tends to work best in the context of music festivals is that which embraces the mad, pulsing nature of the event and allows its audience to find its own way through the piece. A couple of years ago, I saw a selection of Pinter excerpts played at Latitude which completely bombed, with audience members refusing to stay put for much longer than five minutes. It wasn’t that it wasn’t of a high calibre (the company included David Bradley and Janie Dee), just that a performance full of pauses isn’t exactly ideal when it’s laced with thumping rhythms from across the field.
Written “in a mad, four-day burst”, Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again is punky in its anarchy, taking the form of a number of vignettes which form “a series of attempts at a feminist revolution” which are in turn painful and hilarious. One scene, for example, sees a couple discussing what the words “Will you marry me?” actually mean in the twenty-first century, whilst another asks what happens if we start denying our offspring. It culminates in a mad, surreal sketch which breaks down the barriers of gender, language and theatre all at once, and throws out the startling (but tongue-in-cheek) conclusion that men should be eradicated.
“It’s definitely heightened,” Birch told me earlier this year, “I wanted to write something that was still a play and theatrical in its own merit. It’s by no means a serious proposal. This play, hopefully, takes some of those issues to the extreme, that we can hopefully fall back on and think about in a slightly different way. Once I’d thought about those revolutions, my thinking was always how to make sure that it’s a play, and still theatre.”
By the time the play reaches Latitude, it will already have spent a month at the RSC’s temporary Other Place studio inside the Courtyard Theatre, and a couple of nights at the Royal Court. The high-energy, ephemeral nature of a festival will thus represent a different challenge for the company, but the play is robust and radical enough to appeal to a festival crowd on a Saturday, taking them along to the kind of strange places which have come to be expected of the Suffolk-based event. Indeed, if anything, a festival is the perfect place to start a revolution.
Latitude Festival runs from 17-20 July. For more information, visit the website.