Festival Focus: The Last Word Festival

From poetry to speed garage, Roundhouse’s spoken-word extravaganza, The Last Word Festival, has it all, as producer Rachel Nelken tells us.

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For two weeks as spring turns into summer, London’s Roundhouse becomes home to The Last Word Festival. Running from 25 May to 10 June, the annual event is a celebration of all things spoken word and gig theatre.

Producer Rachel Nelken explains more about the event that shines a spotlight on everything from poetry to clubbing:


What is The Last Word Festival?

The Last Word Festival is an annual festival of spoken word. It’s the UK’s largest festival of spoken word, encompassing theatre, poetry, music, clubbing, audiovisual experimentation, beatboxing, workshops, panels, masterclasses… You name it, if it’s got words in it, we’ve got it!

Why is it important to have a festival celebrating spoken word/gig theatre?

In terms of the UK arts scene it’s one of the coolest and most accessible art forms. And it’s where some of the most exciting collaboration and experimentation is taking place. We’re on a mission to bring this work and the amazing artists involved to a wider audience, as we genuinely believe there’s something for everyone in this festival.

It’s a really diverse art form. Perhaps because so many people enjoy words and wordplay, it attracts both artists and audiences from a huge range of cultures and backgrounds, interests, passions and preoccupations. Just a quick glance through this year’s Last Word programme will illustrate this.

Another great thing about spoken word is that it often provides a voice or platform for people who feel they don’t have one. So you might hear from groups or individuals who don’t feel they are represented in the mainstream arts world or the media. At Roundhouse we develop younger and emerging talent in spoken word through creative programmes, so it’s great to have a platform where we can give our most advanced young artists the chance to perform, often alongside some of the “big stars” in spoken word. People like Kate Tempest, John Hegley, Irvine Welsh and Hollie McNish have all performed in Last Word.

Finally, spoken word is a very responsive art form. It’s usually created by an individual artist talking about their own experiences – often universal ones – or responding to what’s going on right now in the world. For that reason it feels very relevant and exciting. The stories, themes and issues explored this year are hot topics that everyone is talking about. It’s great to be able to encourage people to think about these in a different way, enjoy an artist’s creative response and come out feeling like they’ve really experienced something moving or challenging. Or just laughed a lot!

Gig theatre is a fairly new strand of spoken word where the storytelling is combined with music. But it’s less like a “musical”, as it’s not generally songs, more like a live soundtrack that is part of the show.

For example, Benin City’s Last Night, which explores the decline of nightclub culture, has got a totally new, banging soundtrack for the audience to enjoy. They’ll be standing in the nightclub itself! And With A Little Bit Of Luck, Sabrina Mahfouz’s show, is a full-on garage rave with a great story. It’s staged with one actor, a singer and a DJ, who all play their part. And it’s followed by a proper live PA with Luck and Neat!

What We Leave Behind - Part of The Last Word Festival
What We Leave Behind – Part of The Last Word Festival

How has the festival changed since it first launched?

I think spoken word has become more and more experimental in terms of collaborating with other art forms. The scene has grown and the festival has grown, too. This year we have over 36 shows. We have been putting spoken word into Roundhouse’s iconic Main Space since the 2015 festival. This year With A Little Bit Of Luck and our Poetry Slam finale will both take place in the Main Space, which is great for attracting those bigger audiences.

Are there any themes that draw this year’s shows together?

There are indeed. Identity and heritage, mental health, grief/loss, truth/politics, and spectacles –John Hegley is joining us once more!

What did you look for when programming the festival?

We always look for a great idea, something that catches the imagination, feels authentic, relevant and exciting. We look for great artists, who are great with words, great performers and really able to engage an audience. That’s really important when sometimes it’s just one person on stage! And we wanted to make sure the festival reflected as wide a variety of voices, genders and backgrounds as possible.

Tongue Fu - Part of The Last Word Festival
Tongue Fu – Part of The Last Word Festival

Which show would you recommend for someone who’s never seen a spoken word/gig theatre show before?

I challenge anyone not to have a wicked night at With A Little Bit Of Luck. I’ve several friends coming to that who wouldn’t consider themselves spoken word fans but are so excited about this one! I think Jack Rooke’s Happy Hour will be fantastic, too. Jack’s just had a great series on BBC3 exploring men and mental health issues. He is such a great performer and raises some really interesting questions.

Which show would you recommend for someone who knows the spoken word/gig theatre scene?

For those of more of a literary/political bent, I think Sabrina Mahfouz’s The Things I Would Tell You, readings from her book of essays written by British Muslim women, will be really interesting. In the same vein, the new commissions from three writers of Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant, the book which received so much well-deserved press attention last year. I think Salena Godden’s new work, Mrs Death Misses Death, will be great and Francesca Beard’s show, How To Survive A Post-Truth Apocalypse, will be really interesting and push the audience out of their comfort zones, in a good way.

What is your own Last Word Festival highlight?

I can’t choose one! They’re all so different and all really interesting. I am looking forward very much to a bit of a rave at Last Night and to With A Little Bit Of Luck. But I honestly can’t wait for all the shows in the festival; I’ll be living at the Roundhouse for those two weeks!

The Last Word Festival runs at Roundhouse from 25 May to 10 June.