Theatre: The green green grass

The English are traditionally obsessed with gardens. The Salisbury Festival is using them as an arena for avant-garde art. By Clare Bayley
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NEVER WORK with children or animals, goes the old adage - but how about with hedges or herbaceous borders? The Salisbury Festival exists far from the urban world, and has this year made the most of its bucolic setting.

The centre-piece of the festival's theatre programming is an adult reworking of Alice in Wonderland by Hilary Westlake, an avant-garde director, made especially for the Larmer Tree Pleasure Gardens. And a series of site- specific works in gardens and the landscape, Secret Gardens, has been commissioned by the producer Theresa Bergne from artists working with natural materials.

The festival has metamorphosed in five years from a series of classical concerts in the cathedral attracting 5,000 people, to a multi-disciplinary international festival which last year sold 42,000 tickets in a town of 30,000 people, when a third of the programme was free. Helen Marriage has worked this miracle, and has not done it by cautious programming.

"I always tried to show that being artistically adventurous doesn't necessarily mean being financially imprudent," she explains modestly.

Her background is in live art, and so the core classical music programme now rubs shoulders happily with more off-the wall projects. The British public's current craze for gardening, as witnessed by the scores of gardening magazines on the shelves and gardening programmes on the box, may only be an extension of the interior decor boom of the last decade. But gardens are irresistible to the English, especially in summer and even more if some cultural activity is taking place there. Theresa Bergne's background is in commissioning public art for some of the most concrete of jungles - Canary Wharf and the South Bank Centre - but her interest in Secret Gardens came from imagining what gardens mean to people.

"They can be private places for contemplation or nostalgia, stirring up memories through sights and smells. But historically they were an extension of the living-room," she says. "Site-specific commissions encourage people to look at their surroundings in a new light."

The gardens of Hyde's House consequently becomes the setting for Jyll Bradley's play Digging For Ladies, while Crockerton Combe, a valley that has never been ploughed and hosts 84 species of wild flowers, becomes Contour, by Tania Kovats. She has planted a strip of oats along the base of the valley, following the contour line of a map.

The gardens of Heale House provided the inspiration for a cycle of poems by the gardener-poet Alice Oswald, one of which has been carved into stone and placed in a stream for the audience to find, another of which will be whispered to you when you lean over the edge of an old well. Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey are creating Blasted Oak, a drama of an infinitely slow kind, by planting grass seed all over the trunk and branches of a dead oak tree in the grounds of the Earl of Pembroke's Wilton House.

Back in the main festival, theatre-lovers can catch the RSC and the City of London Sinfonia in A Midsummer Night's Dream in the private gardens of Fonthill Park. But Helen Marriage's centrepiece, Dining With Alice, is a magnificently offbeat creation.

"I try to find a context where this more experimental approach makes sense to the audience," says Marriage. This production has been created for the pleasure gardens laid out by General Pitt-Rivers in 1898, and takes the form of a five-course Victorian dinner for 200 guests per performance, served by 70 waiters who will conduct their safe passage around the garden while a 10-piece orchestra plays, and Wonderland erupts around them.

"The premiss," says Hilary Westlake, "is that characters such as the White Rabbit and the Mad Hatter were no longer needed to serve Alice's dreams, so what became of them? Many went into service, became valets and butlers, and now they are hosting their first alfresco dinner party, with a recital."

Quite apart from the possibility of snooping around gardens which you might not otherwise visit - or even have heard about - an enterprise like this seems to bring out the potential of a garden. The complementary pleasures of art and nature can be enjoyed and the unusual setting heightens the audience's responses and the sense of participation.

There are unpredictable elements, such as rain, mosquitoes and uncomfortable seating. But unpredictability is a benchmark of the festival and, besides, it is well known as enhancing both art and nature.