In the latest look at a show that should have opened this week but could not because of the coronavirus lockdown, Lyn Gardner speaks to Kris Nelson, artistic director of LIFT, which was due to open this week. She also looks at a significant show that opened this week in a previous year
The 2020 edition of the London International Festival of Theatre was due to open this week. The biennial event was founded by Rose Fenton and Lucy Neal in 1981 to bring international theatre that is often experimental, frequently challenging and always political to the UK. It has hugely influenced many people’s opinions of what theatre is and can be. This year’s festival, under new artistic director
Kris Nelson and executive director Stella Kanu, was also to be the first post-Brexit, and had been given the theme of fact and fantasy.
“It’s an irony,” says Nelson ruefully, “as now the whole festival has become a fantasy.” Nelson says that his aim was to reposition LIFT “towards new artists and new experiences for audiences, but remaining close to its DNA and the international spirit of Rose and Lucy and Mark Ball, the last director”.
Who was involved?
The programme featured hundreds of artists from around the world, and partner venues included the Young Vic, Southbank Centre, the Barbican, Shoreditch Town Hall, Battersea Arts Centre and the Bernie Grant Arts Centre.
Highlights included Ruth Wilson in the 24-hour durational piece The Second Woman; Sonia Hughes’ I am From Reykjavik, an interactive installation in which she builds a temporary dwelling in the Royal Docks; and Kenyan company Nest Collective’s work The Feminine and the Foreign, profiling feminist, queer and migration activists in London and Cape Town.
The Greek myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece was to be reimagined by Ben Duke in The Argonauts, a show made with disabled and able-bodied artists from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine. The festival would have kicked off this week with Tina Satter’s Is This a Room about the US Air Force linguist currently in jail for leaking documents about Russian involvement in Western democratic processes.
“Is This a Room was due to be the first show and was the cornerstone of the festival,” says Nelson, “because it interrogates power and politics and patriotism. It is of the moment, and that’s what we’ve been trying to capture with the whole festival. The programme was put together with the idea of taking the temperature of the city and seeing where the needles are peaking.”
How far did LIFT get?
“We announced the programme on March 10and the response was amazing – people told us how fresh the programme looked. But when the theatres were closed the following week, we knew nothing was viable. There were hundreds of phone calls that had to be made. It was hard. But LIFT is lucky. We are in better shape than some other festivals. We didn’t have to apply for Arts Council emergency funding. We have been quiet – deliberately. There will be some kind of digital offer in the summer, but we are keeping our powder dry and looking to roll out a bigger offer next year.”
What might its 2021 offering look like?
“We are looking to a programme that has many of these works repurposed, but maybe not all of them. The world is shifting at a gobsmacking pace – 2020 is a year of disruption and my guess is that 2021 will be a year of transition. I think LIFT 2021 will be a chance to create a festival that responds to the in-between and allows audiences to find a compass. But it’s a challenge. There are all sorts of questions around partners here in the UK and also internationally. LIFT is part of an international eco-system.”
What is Nelson doing during the shutdown?
“Thinking. It is clear from what has happened that as a sector we need to change how we commission and produce and support artists. Freelancers have been badly hit by the shutdown. But I also see it as an opportunity for the sector and for LIFT to be really pioneering.
It’s time to forge new ways of working and to go forward with heart, vision and generosity
It’s time to forge new ways of working and to go forward with heart, vision and generosity. There are big questions. What does digital do for accessibility and how might we use that? What could a socially distanced auditorium look like? What is future-proofed art? These things keep me up at night, but in a good way.”
For further details, visit: liftfestival.com
A show that did run this week, 40 years ago, was The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (above photo: Reg Wilson). It was adapted by David Edgar for the Royal Shakespeare Company and opened at the Aldwych Theatre in London on June 5, 1980.
The show came about because the RSC had money troubles and Trevor Nunn decided that rather than put on the customary three Shakespeare plays that season, all resources would be channelled into an adaptation of Dickens’ novel, with a cast of 43 actors playing 150 roles. Directed by John Caird and Trevor Nunn, with design by John Napier and Dermot Hayes, the original cast was an eye-wateringly impressive line-up of established and fledgling talent including Bob Peck, Ben Kingsley, Timothy Spall, Susan Littler, Edward Petherbridge, Suzanne Bertish, David Threlfall and Roger Rees.
The show was a marvellous piece of storytelling and combined consummate characterisation with a compelling narrative, but the cast alone should have been enough to ensure the piece’s legendary status. Initially, however, it was not a critical hit. Many critics were quite sniffy, but Bernard Levin championed the production in the Times and the show became a massive word-of-mouth hit. It came with a subversive sting in the tale, with Edgar amplifying Dickens’ novel to show the cruelties and inequalities of capitalism.
It’s a good show to remember in the current moment, when inequalities in society and theatre have been highlighted by lockdown. But the success of Nickleby also serves as a reminder that when times are financially tough in theatre – as they are likely to be in the coming years – boldness and radicalism often pay unexpected dividends.