Festival review: Latitude 2012

Published by theartsdesk

Thursday 12th – Sunday 15th July 2012
Henham Park, Suffolk, UK

As a giggling toddler posed for a photograph next to a pink sheep, a man in a Barbour jacket moaned about losing his garlic-crusher. On the lake, smitten newlyweds enjoyed a gondola ride, while, somewhere else, an elderly couple watched a show so moving it made them cry.

Yes, this could only have happened in one place – the leafy surroundings of Henham Park, near Southwold in Suffolk, at Latitude Festival.

The arts event has just enjoyed its seventh July, and retains a vibrant cultural miscellany. In fact, 750 music, theatre, art, comedy, cabaret, poetry, politics, dance, literature and everything-in-between acts appeared across more than a dozen stages this time around. ‘It’s like the Edinburgh Fringe, but in a field,’ some spectacled reveller enthused, gesturing with a rolled-up broadsheet, as if to further illustrate this point.

Talking of newspapers, this year’s controversy was undoubtedly the introduction of the i Arena (formerly the Sunrise Arena). The change was only in name, of course, affecting neither the general feel of this smaller, more intimate musical stage, nor the variety of bands performing on it. But symbolism is important to some Latitude purists, who bemoan further advances toward – dare I say it – the mainstream.

With no fewer than eight corporate sponsors, and now priced at £175 a weekend ticket, the festival continues to develop in spite of their tuts and sighs. Though, to be honest, I can think of far greater crimes committed that weekend (more on those later), and anyway, isn’t Latitude still ‘more than just a music festival’?

One of the first acts to answer that with a defiant ‘yes’ was Theatre503, which staged new play ‘Billy Chickens Is A Psychopath Superstar’ on Thursday evening. Visceral, satirical and exasperatingly physical, the story of the piece surrounded a charismatic but homicidally unstable cockney gobshite who somehow becomes the media’s flavour of the month.

'Billy Chickens Is A Psychopath Superstar' by Theatre503

The Theatre Arena now stands significantly taller and wider than its smaller, quainter predecessor, where you could relish the finest pleasure in the world – watching a piece of drama with the sound of rain pounding on the canvas above your head.

You might have said I got what I asked for when, that night, I returned to my tent and was forced to appreciate the sound of rain on canvas all night long. Indeed, Suffolk’s sky water inspired a survival-like mentality that was novel to us optimists – with apparently inadequate tenting that required an inner lining t-shirts, loo roll and newspaper to keep the water out – who used it as an opportunity to relive our days at scouts.

After suffering a lack of sleep because of these heroics that would have made Captain Scott proud, I felt a little hazy on Friday afternoon, and so decided to give my brain a workout by going to see an interview with Siri Hustvedt at the Literary Arena. Sure enough, watching the acclaimed novelist, essayist and poet shoot the breeze with Suzi Feay about art, humanity and psychology just about did the job. Bemusingly, though, the tent was only half-filled. I assumed that such academic, intellectual and existential discussions were the things most ‘Latte-tuders’ dreamed of – though perhaps this particular event had simply been overlooked by those who’d been distracted by the other 332 pages in the festival programme.

Another show in danger of getting lost in this bulky text was Battersea Arts Centre’s ingenious ‘Paper Cinema’s Odyssey’. In something of a first for myself and much of the audience, Homer’s cornerstone of literature was told in inventive fashion with a projector, a couple of puppeteers, four musicians and a bunch of paper cut-outs. It was a truly magical 60 minutes, after which I left my seat feeling rather uplifted.

'Paper Cinema's Odyssey' by Battersea Arts Centre

And some performances were not listed in the programme at all. These included many of the shenanigans in the Mess Tent – out in the Faraway Forest – the smallest venue on site. One of its acts was a corset-clad, loud-mouthed Aussie gal, who showed off some of her circus skills (or something) to a crowd of about 30. She called herself Lilikoi Kaos, and I’ll never forget those bawdy, brash but brilliant ten minutes we shared on Saturday evening.

Another equally memorable ten minutes occurred at midnight on the Writer’s Bridge. I say ten minutes – it could have been longer, or shorter, because time isn’t really of the essence when you’re watching a trapeze artist being carried majestically across the lake by a balloon that changes colour. You’re right, it sounds achingly pretentious when recounted, but did inspire true wonder at the time. ‘Is this really happening?’ expressions were worn by many who were simply incapacitated in bedazzlement as they witnessed – I’ll say it again – a trapeze artist being carried majestically across the lake by a balloon that changed colour. I had some strange dreams that night.

Saturday in the Obelisk Arena, and many would argue the entire festival, belonged to Elbow. Topping the bill on the main stage, these gentle alternative rockers with their soaring, anthemic songs, were the perfect star attraction. Everything an onlooker could want from a headliner was present in the set: stunning backdrops, constantly changing images of the performance, good-natured banter with the crowd and, above all, great songs spanning their impressive back catalogue.

If you’ve been visiting Latitude Festival for a number of years, one arresting observation that never escapes you is how busy it has become. For a third consecutive year, the capacity has remained at 35,000 – a reasonable level for a medium-sized festival, you might think, yet still three times what it was in 2006.

Many of the faces behind this statistic are young ones. Teenagers who, partying in their gaggles of 15 or 20, you’d expect to be attracted to somewhere a bit more lively – like Leeds/Reading Festival, maybe. Put another way, at Latitude, you’re now more likely to meet a red-eyed lad called Dekky spilling Tuborg over himself than you are a fortysomething chap called Oliver eating flafel – contrary to popular opinion of this ‘middle-class festival’.

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t see a soul under 25 in the Film & Music Arena on Friday, where avant-pop violinist Hahn-Bin took to the stage to deliver a typically flamboyant and effortlessly perfect performance presented by the Royal Albert Hall.

He was followed by a trio of darkly comic gems from the London Short Film Festival. ‘Friend Request Pending’, the first, was about two elderly women with an alarming Facebook obsession. A psychotic London copper’s shift quickly descended into nightmarish mayhem after he mistakenly took a hard drug in ‘Disappoint You’, while ‘Long Distance Information’ – exploring familial fragmentation with a tale about a son who accidentally calls the wrong father, but still manages to communicate just as well as the pair fail to realise they aren’t related – completed the set.

'Disappoint You' short film

A good few clusters of little people, however, could be found linking arms as they weaved in and out of a full house in the Word Arena, where pop icon Lana Del Rey and a string quartet performed an set of epic singles on Friday. Wearing a white dress and taking delicate drags from a cigarette – at a guess, a Lucky Strike – in between songs, the bewitching singer-songwriter crooned her way through hits like Blue Jeans, Video Games and National Anthem. And yet she did nothing to suggest that she, and her music, isn't simply a beautiful, but somehow empty, nothing.

Even the performers at Latitude are getting younger. Who could forget Harry Baker, the 20-year-old rapper-turned-poet who had his audience in stitches with a dessert-themed reworking of Ed Sheeran’s single ‘The A Team’?

But there was absolutely no doubt as to who owned the Poetry Arena that weekend. Weaving impassioned stories and sound advice into jaw-dropping rhymes, Scroobius Pip appeared at home in front of the thousands who’d gathered to see him on Saturday night. People were spilling out of the tent, and into the neighbouring food queues, as the Essex wordsmith remarked: ‘This is the largest spoken word crowd I’ve ever seen.’

Carrying a healthy sense of humour outside of his melancholic verse, Pip joked about fans illegally downloading his self-released first album ‘No Commercial Breaks’, and how, aware of this, he had created a ‘guilt button’ on his website for them to pay up. Suddenly, the stage was showered with flying coins and notes, which, although disbelieving, he dutifully collected. ‘People shouldn’t throw money at me when I’m on stage, because it distracts me and then ruins the show for you guys,’ he said, bending down to pick up another quid.

'A Letter from God to Man' by Scroobius Pip

I think everyone would agree he was worth every penny, and his mesmerising set ended with a full two minutes of applause, before the awe-filled crowd reluctantly dispersed – hopeful of an encore.

If I hadn’t made a very late call on packing my wellies, and was stuck with my blue Converse all weekend, then I’d have missed this. Because I would have never left my tent. The campsite sludge squelched with every blasted step, and there was a perpetual need for woodchip – even when things finally brightened up on Sunday.

I think Lang Lang had something to do with the arrival of blue skies. They came at around the same time he headlined the Waterfront Stage, where crowds had gathered on both sides of the lake, and across the Writer’s Bridge, to catch a glimpse of the classical pianist. They witnessed a flawless performance, including pieces by Schubert and Chopin, that was every bit as elegant as Lang Lang’s entrance – via gondola.

So, those are my highlights – bar one. Thrash metal and anti-Conservative sentiments, anyone? Yes, #Torycore, in the Literary Salon, involved a woman screaming: ‘A HEALTHY AND FLEXIBLE ECONOMY’, and other short excerpts from George Osborne’s speeches as Chancellor, ironically of course, as some dude played power cords really, really loud. ‘And now,’ she said, very calmly, when that bit was over, ‘I’m going to read out a list of the Lords who voted for the Health and Social Care Bill, and their links to the private healthcare sector’. Then she erupted again.

After that ordeal, I rather conveniently concluded that the contrast between Lang Lang and #Torycore appeared to describe the sheer spectrum of cultural plurality that Latitude continues to represent. It remains remarkable, miraculous even, how arts followers of radically different persuasions are squeezing – and squeeze they did – through the same entrance gates to come to this place, year after year.

Latitude hasn’t become so inflated that it’s not still an artsy, lefty, intellectual event that continues to attract artists, lefties and intellectuals from across this fair land. But, as the swathes of sloshed young people demonstrated this year, not exclusively.