By TOBY LICHTIG
If the Hay Festival is "the Woodstock of the mind" and Port Eliot "the Glastonbury of books" then Latitude near Southwold in Suffolk needs no comparison. The experience of attending might be labelled Total Festivalling.
Though many people are drawn to Latitude by the biggish-name bands – this year's line-up included Damon Albarn (excellent), James (ditto) and Lily Allen (whom we arrived too late to see) – there is no one artform that feels privileged above the rest. The sheer range of culture on offer is overwhelming, and much of this year's content was of a very high quality.
Latitude isn't enormous (this year's attendance was 35,000 compared to, say, Glastonbury's city state of around 140,000) but it makes up for size in breadth. Over a whirlwind forty-eight hours, I took in ballet, performance poetry, theatre, film, philosophy, literary debate, audio-visual DJ sets, a lecture on the neuroscience of memory, comedy, circus, cabaret (some of it desperate, some compelling in a Dadaist sort of way), Shakespearean criticism in a tiny shed, "live art", contemporary dance – and even found time for some old-fashioned gigs.
I missed out on a great deal too: Forced Entertainment's adaptation of Agota Kristof's The Notebook, for example, which Michael Caines recently wrote about in this blog; a selection of documentary films which featured at this year's Sheffield DocFest. The main gripe about Latitude is that there's barely opportunity to scratch the surface. And nor is there space. With the pleasures of high octane local cider and four main music stages to lure the revellers away (not to mention the beautiful sunshine radiating over this year's lush surroundings), I was delighted to see how crammed the "non-music" tents were: queues snaking around the block to catch the latest production from the Battersea Arts Centre; children and adults hanging at the fringes of a bulging marquee to catch snippets of Michael Rosen; people crowding on the bridges and river banks to watch the English National Ballet perform Van Le Ngoc's "Four Seasons".
The Literary Tent at music festivals can sometimes feel like a tokenistic affair, a place for partygoers to cower from the rain, nurse hangovers, find a quiet cushioned corner to catch up on some sleep. At Latitude there are three separate and generously spaced arenas for poetry, literature and science, as well as a 480-seat theatre and dozens of other smaller venues. And not one of them sat empty.
My personal highlights included a performance in the woods of a theatre piece by Clean Break entitled Meal Ticket: a deeply affecting series of interlinked monologues featuring three women reflecting on chaotic lives of alternating hope, desperation, dissolution and addiction. Snippets of memory ("I'm fourteen and sitting on the school bus") mingle with dreams and financial realities ("I need to pay £10.80 a week to visit my son"), the human drama given heft by doses of wry humour and jarring juxtapositions, such as when a comical anecdote about an acid trip is followed by one character's recollection of having no money for her dealer, "so I hit him with a hammer".
Clean Break is a charity that uses theatre to work with vulnerable women; all three performers were graduates of the organization's programme, and the stories were their own. With narcotic abuse a central theme, it was a canny piece of programming: recreational drug taking is widespread at British festivals and Meal Ticket explores its nasty underbelly. (Disclaimer: my wife works for the charity but she had no hand in the production.)
Also highly memorable was the RSC's production of Alice Birch's Revolt. She said. Revolt again: a witty dissection of everyday sexism in all its pernicious banality. In the opening scene, which sets the tone for the whole, a man tries to seduce a woman, who subverts his witlessly domineering attempts at charm to imagine an erotic scenario in which – like a nightmare from the poetry of Rochester – she overpowers him, "enveloping you and consuming you". Further scenes challenge the language and expectations of the workplace, marriage, parenthood and pornography ("I am having a genuinely wonderful time", one debased pornstar assures us), before the various strands culminate in a hectic crescendo of competing sexist clichés.
More soothing was Patrick Barkham in the Literary Arena, speaking about his recent book Badgerlands and attired for the occasion as a badger. Barkham made a convincing case for why the nation's biggest predator needs to be nurtured rather than culled, and why the answer to Bovine TB lies in vaccination. The question is a fraught one, and at least one farmer spoke up in favour of culling. As Patrick Evans wrote in his TLS review of Barkham's book, part of the reason for the fierceness of the debate is that "nobody can decide whether . . . they are a pest or a national treasure".