Brighton Festival: Speaking out

From this Saturday, to mark the start of the three-week Brighton Festival 2011, Brighton Town Hall will play host to The New World

Aung San Suu Kyi, guest director of Brighton Festival 2011

Order, Harold Pinter’s protest against political suppression and the cruel and silencing voice of torture. Audiences will move from one room to another, including the building’s disused Victorian police cells, experiencing at close quarters the terror and hopelessness of imprisonment; inhumanity as a constant.

It’s the energy produced by this combination of the abstract and the visceral – setting The New World Order in the dungeons of the Town Hall – which chief executive Andrew Comben believes makes the seaside city of Brighton’s annual festival so distinctive. “I think it’s one of the most important things, that we are absolutely located in this place. It sounds banal, but we self-consciously plan work that responds to the different and sometimes odd sites across the city. Over the past couple of years, and even further back, we’ve had work in the Old Co-op Building and in the fruit and veg market in Circus Street. We are always trying to animate those sometimes diffuse sites in new and different ways.”

Comben acknowledges that many festivals, notably the Edinburgh Fringe, could make similar claims. However, as he argues, there is something peculiar to Brighton, with its minaret skyline, patchwork streets, shabby grandeur and salt-spray vibrancy, that makes it perfect for the interplay of local geography and big themes. Since the Prince Regent, later King George IV, decided to recreate the Taj Mahal in the form of the Royal Pavilion, the city has cultivated an identity in which quirkiness and broad horizons are inseparable. “This is part of Brighton”, says Comben. “It really enjoys its isolation but has, historically, had an important sense of itself in international terms. Its remoteness, its apartness from London and the rest of the country – right on the edge – means that it absolutely feels that it’s part of international discourse.”

For Comben, the appointment of Burmese human rights activist and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi as guest director of this year’s Festival encapsulates Brighton’s potential when it comes to international debate. “She stands for so much, particularly freedom and human rights. And when I thought of Brighton & Hove and this part of the world, the incredibly free spirit it’s always suggested, it was this that led me to her.”

Comben set up the guest directorship shortly after assuming the position of chief executive in 2008 because he felt that the Festival’s broad-ranging programme could benefit from a strong and coherent core. “The best way we felt that we could do that was to invite a guest director to work with, who could also be used as inspiration for the rest of the programme”, he reveals. This led to the appointment of sculptor Anish Kapoor in 2009, followed in 2010 by musician and producer Brian Eno.

Unlike her predecessors, Suu Kyi hasn’t been actively involved in programming the Festival and won’t be present during its run (although she has issued a message of thanks and support). For Comben, this is what makes her such a powerful and appropriate choice. “It came from looking at that famous photo of the Elders, Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson and the other world leaders. Whenever they met when she was under house arrest, they would have an empty chair symbolising her absence. It made me think that the image of an absent guest director would be an incredibly potent and poignant one. It would say so much about freedom and the indomitable human spirit.”

As well as the re-staging of The New World Order, Suu Kyi’s directorship has inspired a host of other theatrical, musical and visual art pieces that take as their subject the value of liberty in different cultures, countries and regimes. And on 19 May, an updated version of Richard Shannon’s play about Suu Kyi, The Lady of Burma, will be shown at the Theatre Royal.

Historically, festivals have presented an opportunity to consolidate local civic identity. Since the mystery cycle plays first trundled through medieval streets, funded by town guilds, such events have involved communal effort and input. It would be easy to imagine, then, that the Brighton Festival’s increasingly international outlook is putting a few noses out of joint. But Comben doesn’t see it this way. “You’re right that the festival wants to grow and hit an ever higher international bar, but I think that’s part of the challenge”, he argues. “We’re bringing international work here and local artists respond to it as a challenge to aim even higher.” As an example, he points to Brighton- based company Dreamthinkspeak’s acclaimed piece, Before I Sleep, which was inspired by The Cherry Orchard and performed last year in the Old Co-op Building. “It was such a hit that it ended up running for nine weeks rather than three and will be going to the Holland Festival in June. It ticked all the boxes of artistic excellence and is very much our local artistic progeny.”

Comben continues: “What we’re doing is engaging directly with the artists who are living here, commissioning work and showcasing it on an international platform. So, in that sense, we have two things going on: we’re attracting an international group of artists to Brighton but we’re also trying to show the work of artists who were born here to a wider audience.”

But it’s not all about artistic enlightenment. Comben is well aware of his responsibilities to local commerce, too. “It’s interesting”, he explains. “The birth of the Brighton Festival is important in comparison with the post-war festivals like Edinburgh and Aldborough – it was different. In 1967, it was the borough councillors who decided that they wanted to brand the city with an artistic cultural event, to counteract the impression that the Mods and Rockers were creating of the town.

“So, in that sense, it wasn’t about some Reithian ideal of education; it was much more about the place and bringing people to it for cultural tourism. This has become very much part of what Brighton & Hove is about, not only in May but particularly in May. We know that the Festival brings more than £20 million to the economy. This has been an important argument for the Council’s ongoing support and the businesses and traders who really get behind us every year.”

It’s clear that a holistic approach is the cornerstone of Comben’s vision of the Brighton Festival, artistically and functionally. It’s something he returns to when I ask about the relationship between the Festival and the Fringe Festival, which became a separate entity in 2006. While Comben maintains that this independence is “important for the health and growth of both sides” he’s happy to concede that, individually, the two events would have far less impact than they do by working together. “It’s the Fringe’s activities, particularly outside and on the streets, which make the Festival more visible than it might otherwise be”, he states.

We’ve returned to the notion of Brighton itself as a performance space; an ad-hoc stage, the size of a city, upon which narratives are played out against a backdrop of higgledy-piggledy buildings, the screeching of seagulls and the clammy, sweet smell of doughnuts baking on the Palace Pier. And like reflective prisms, each show performed in this environment takes on a different hue as part of the Festival’s cumulative offering. Comben reveals that this is a perspective common to every guest director so far. “Eno talked about the planting of seeds, the idea of generative art – that you’d throw something into the pond, whether it was Afrobeat or his 70 million paintings, and generate something larger. That is, I think, the essence of what an arts festival can do.”

And what’s he looking forward to seeing emerge from the pond this time? “There are a range of things, but you’d expect me to say that”, he laughs. “But the sense of bringing a totally new commission to life is a wonderful thing. As the World Tipped, which will be on in the Wild Park during the final weekend of the Festival, is a big, new outdoor theatre show by Nigel Jamieson, who directed the opening and closing ceremonies of the Sydney Olympics. From what I’ve seen, it’s a really wonderful aerial and outdoor projection piece.”

As well as music, art installations and theatre productions, the Brighton Festival will continue its popular series of talks, with guest speakers including WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and subjects ranging from the future of Burma to a people’s debate about happiness in the modern world. Ultimately, Comben hopes that that cumulative effect of the 2011 programme, “particularly with someone like Suu Kyi involved”, will be to “propel debate further, and with urgency.” With around 250,000 visitors per year, there will certainly be enough eyes to see, ears to hear and voices to be raised.

The 2011 Brighton Festival runs from 7th to 29th May. For further information and tickets, visit: Brighton Festival                                     

First published by Exeunt Magazine

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