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Everything on the Level

Corinne Salisbury muses on the 2009 Latitude Festival.

Dateline: 24th July, 2009

The entrance to Latitude from the guest campsite takes you immediately into the woods. You circle down a steep, sun-mottled path through the trees, towards the lake beyond which is the main festival site. On your way you pass four six-foot-high canvas boards, on which festival-goers are invited to scrawl whatever expression of happiness they fancy. By the time I arrive on Friday morning the boards are already chockablock.

Latitude Festival is another world. In its fourth year now, it was born out of the idea to create a festival containing every art form the organisers could possibly want to see in one place. True it has a reputation for being a middle-class paradise, but this seems a bit of a meaningless statement to me: yes it caters for a huge number of different cultural interests, but is that to say that more traditional music festivals appeal only to the riff-raff? In fact I think Latitude attracts the mainstream festival crowd as much as any other event, its musical line-up being pretty top-notch; but then encourages attenders simply to be open to all of the other art forms available on site as well. And it works. People who would not normally trek to an open-mic night especially, drop into the poetry tent in a spare 15 minutes and find themselves wowed. In the Film and Music tent, you stick your head inside to find Shane Meadows or Stephen Frears in mid-serious intellectual flow before a rapt audience who then queue in dozens to ask questions. And the cheers, jeers and strange noises coming from the theatre tent attract a stream of curious hedonists all day long.

For this is festival theatre, and not what we know at all. The custom-built in-the-round marquee has a medium-size square stage surrounded by banked wooden seating, with stairs to each corner of the stage via which the actors enter. There are no doors in and out: the side facing the festival site is simply open gaps between the marquee poles, so that people are constantly slipping in and out throughout every performance. For the popular shows there are great banks of people thronging around the edges of the marquee, craning over each other's heads for a view of the stage. But this restlessness in the audience is not at all a problem - and for this theatre puritan that is saying something. The actors are miked and focused, and will not be put off their stride by any number of random audience member departures or entrances. Some acts make a virtue of it - Hugh Hughes, doing his Pleasance show pre-Edinburgh, kindly waits for newcomers to take their seats, advises them where to sit for a good view and offers to recap what's happened so far. It does mean that we don't often get the type of stunned silence that you go to the theatre for - but the few times when it does happen, in DryWrite's show for instance and the RSC's, five hundred people momentarily frozen to the spot is a thrilling thing.

The performances are mostly large, audience-friendly and often fourth-wall-breaking; with shows averaging 40 minutes to an hour there is not much time for subtlety, but the best acts are those that acknowledge this fact and try to do something completely different with their show. There is audience interaction aplenty; and music is everywhere. Che Walker's seedy, soulful musical Been So Long, performed twice at Latitude in two abridged forms, couldn't be more perfect in this setting and watching the actors belt out the tunes (especially Naana Agyei-Ampadu with her long hymn of sexual desire), we go wild. The form I saw was so heavily cut that most of the narrative arc was lost - you can't say you have watched a complete play, but you've certainly seen a show.

Other shows (such as the Lyric's) equally manage to make the music feel natural and integral, while in some of the pieces it feels shoehorned in in an attempt to revive flagging attention spans. It's a fine balance, to use certain visceral ploys to keep an audience interested, without seeming to patronise them. Those that succeed do so stunningly.

And elsewhere on site... how to describe the multiplicity? The outdoor stage in a woody glade shows strange, spaced-out cabaret all day long. There are sheep by the lake spray-painted pink and green for the occasion. At dusk, in the woods again, a man in a tin man/robot suit decked in fairy lights performs ambient electronic music to an audience of toddlers. A man in a wolf puppet body-costume, striding past me, offers to carry my bags. By the lake a piano has been placed under a canopy for anyone to play: every time I pass it there is a handful of people clapping and singing along to boogie woogie or chopsticks. All around there are participatory activities: swing dance workshops; clay statuette making; knitting; writing surgeries in the Literary Salon.

We are stoic in the face of downpours. On Friday night Sadler's Wells are due to perform Hofesh Schechter's The Art of Not Looking Back on the open-air stage by the lake, but after a day of rain the heroic stage management team are reduced to towelling the stage on their hands and knees in an attempt to get it dry enough for the dancers. Eventually they perform about three minutes' worth before walking off - it's still too wet. We are left only with the impression of Schechter's shocking scream which begins the show - harrowingly unresolved.

But there is plenty of dancing to be seen over the next few days, including the Royal Opera House's wonderful Black Ballet. And while we are on high culture, there is a particularly amazing coup d'oeil on Sunday when an avant-garde orchestral six-piece are rowed out to a platform in the middle of the water and left there to perform, looking as though they have teleported from another world. Meanwhile in the comedy tent, Mark Thomas incites us to popular uprising, and his helpers hand out thousands of cards advising us how to resist illegal police stop-and-searches. This is a festival that empowers.

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©Peter Lathan 2009