Brighton festivals stay true to form with eclectic line-up
Now a major milestone in the international cultural calendar, the Brighton Festival – complemented by the Brighton Fringe, one of the largest fringe festivals in the world – returns with its annual celebration of mixed arts in the city. Here we preview both events…
“Anyone that reads Ali’s work will know it has a sense of connection to the natural world, and so the relationship between art and nature is one particular theme we’ll be exploring this year,” explains Brighton Festival’s chief executive Andrew Comben. Scottish novelist Ali Smith, author of the Costa prize-winning How to be Both, is the guest director of this year’s festival.
Starting in 2009 the annual festival, originally founded in 1967, has featured a different guest director each year, including the author Michael Rosen, the artist Anish Kapoor and, in 2011, Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Last year, choreographer Hofesh Shechter took the role, and while the exact nature of the curation process and the level of artistic involvement varies from year to year, Smith, according to Comben, has been fairly hands on, the “most involved yet”.
She’s been “a wonderful inspiration to us all in programming the festival”, he says, adding: “What’s remarkable about Ali is her sense of possibility, wonder, imagination and excitement at anything that she encounters – she thinks like no one else I know and loves all art forms. We’ve approached all sorts of exciting and extraordinary people to take part in the festival, both people she knows well, and also people she has loved for many years and perhaps longed for an opportunity to work with.”
This year, the programme is particularly varied and rich, and while there are fewer individual performances than in 2014, a total of 396 compared to 448, there are more exclusive events, commissions and premieres, including Lucia’s Chapters of Coming Forth by Day, a show based on the life of James Joyce’s daughter by the experimental US company, Mabou Mines; it’s a piece that probes at the place where poetry meets theatre.
“We’re also focusing on the crossing places between art forms,” Comben says. “Ali makes the point that birds are born without a sense of borders, and we wondered what it would be like to see the world of performance, art and debate through those eyes.”
This sense of cross-form experimentation can be seen elsewhere in the programme, in Laurie Anderson’s concert, All the Animals, and Sam Green’s intriguing live cinema experience The Measure of All Things, a show about the world’s tallest, highest and oldest things screened with live music and narration. There’s also the UK premiere of Richard Nelson’s award-winning play cycle, The Apple Family Plays – first commissioned by the Public Theatre in New York – all four of which will be staged in one marathon run on May 4, the kind of event theatre that works so well at festivals.
Sharon Fogarty of Mabou Mines expresses her delight at playing the Brighton Festival under Smith’s directorship. “Ali’s innovation in literary form uniquely aligns to our own experiments in theatrical form with Lucia’s Chapters.”
It will be the company’s first tour of England in more than 20 years. She describes the making of the piece as akin to an “archaeological dig, excavating hundreds of documents that might lead to an understanding of a woman who was so important to one of Ireland’s greatest authors”. Lucia Joyce sent almost 47 years in institutions and “the piece centres on the way in which Lucia’s inventive language and eccentric associations influenced Joyce’s greatest experiment, Finnegans Wake. Lucia opened a new world to Joyce and in turn he changed the course of modern literature. Joyce constructs a world in which Lucia’s troubled life is elevated and can be understood”.
Paines Plough will also be bringing Roundabout, its roaming pop-up auditorium to Brighton – and, with it, its productions of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs and Every Brilliant Thing. The festival was keen to host both the work and the space especially as, according to Paines Plough’s co-artistic director, George Perrin, “the concept of Roundabout has evolved” since they first started touring with it.
“It’s not just us touring our work; it’s about other people making use of the venue in every place we go. Our work only takes up a couple of hours a day so you’ve got this really practical, usable space and over the course of the festival they’ll be able to use it as a venue. For us it’s a great platform for our audiences in Brighton, for them it’s this flexible space.”
The festival is now a milestone in the international cultural calendar, in part says Perrin, because “the fact of its curation gives it a particular energy and identity”.
The Brighton Festival takes place from May 2-24
“The scope to lose money is quite remarkable.” Zoe Cunningham has just produced her debut show, a one-woman adaptation of Tracey Sinclair’s Dark Dates vampire novels in which she also stars. It’s been something of a steep learning curve. Having previewed it at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London, she’s now preparing to present it at the Brighton Fringe. She opted for Brighton because it offered the chance for artists to perform for one or two nights as part of a larger programme. “Although that means that some of the costs are split across a fewer number of nights, it makes the number of audience members that you need to attract much more feasible.”
Cunningham’s show is one of around 760 – registration was still open at the time of writing – taking place at 176 venues across this year’s Brighton Fringe, which runs throughout May. There has been a fringe of sorts in existence since the early days of the Brighton Festival in the 1960s, but the two only officially demerged in 2006. In the years since, the fringe has grown rapidly, especially since Julian Caddy became managing director in 2011. It’s now the largest annual arts festival in England and retains an open-access policy. The opportunity for artists to showcase their work without the costs and level of commitment required by the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is clearly part of its appeal. Registration costs are lower too and many people I spoke to describe a sense of support and community which Edinburgh, by virtue of its scale, can often lack.
Cunningham is presenting her show at the Lantern Theatre in Kemptown, which has “offered amazing support”. She adds: “They are flyering on our behalf and started spreading information about the show by word of mouth even before the fringe programme was published. It’s a lovely feeling just to be part of a community and feel that other people are rooting for your show too.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Holly and Ted, a young company that is also taking its debut show Pond Wife, a retelling of the Little Mermaid, to the Brighton Fringe. “We’re performing at Otherplace’s The Basement and the team have been really helpful and are constantly in contact to let us know about potential new poster sites, or to recommend people to invite who may be able to help us in the future.”
For artists at the start of their career, the Brighton Fringe has clear advantages. “To go up to Edinburgh as a brand new company costs a lot of money, we’re currently unfunded and work day jobs to help us afford to do the tour, and a weekend in Brighton is a lot cheaper to finance than a month in Edinburgh, but Brighton is a huge festival and so still has a similar name and reputation. The hope is that we’ll be well received in Brighton and can use that as a stepping stone towards building a reputation for ourselves.”
The Brighton Fringe is enmeshed in the fabric of the city. Not to put too fine a point on it but there’s something very Brighton about the Brighton Fringe. There will be a Spiegeltent in the Old Steine and Otherplace Productions’ pop-up fringe venue The Warren will this year be in the grounds of St Peter’s Church.
Events are spread throughout the city and other venues include a beach hut (of course), a swimming pool, various pubs and private houses around town, a cheese shop, and the Sussex County Cricket Club. One of the most intriguing projects on the programme, presented by the Brighton Laboratory with Circa 69, takes the form of an intimate devised production and an installation, House and House 2, which take place in a Victorian townhouse and a converted council house respectively and set out to explore the different ways in which people relate to the buildings in which they live.
It’s clear though that the financial benefits, the reduction of risk, still appear to be the main factors, even for companies that have already played the Edinburgh game. It’s a good place to test things, as Bertrand Lesca of Bristol-based Fellswoop Theatre, the company behind last year’s atmospheric adaptation of Patrick DeWitt’s novel Ablutions, attests. He’s taking his new show, Current Location to the Brighton Fringe ahead of a run at Summerhall. “We really wanted to pilot the piece on tour before going to the fringe this year. Our piece relies on audience interaction so one can only tell what the piece is like in performance.”
Again, they found hire fees relatively affordable and as a company based in the south-west they were keen to make ties in the south-east. “Brighton Fringe is like a mini Edinburgh, with very little financial risk and a supportive environment to showcase this challenging and experimental piece.”
The Brighton Fringe takes place from May 1-31. Dark Dates is at The Lantern on May 2 and 12, Pond Wife is at Otherplace at the Basement from May 2-4, Current Location is at One Church Brighton from May 27-29