Brighton Festival unveils superb line-up as the arts return

Care will be the theme of this year’s Brighton Festival as we all attempt to emerge from the pandemic.

Tuesday, 30th March 2021, 1:00 pm
Andrew Comben
Andrew Comben

Acclaimed British and Ethiopian poet, playwright and broadcaster Lemn Sissay launched the 2021 programme this week as the festival guest director – a role he was to have fulfilled last year before the 2020 festival was cancelled. Lemn’s 2021 programme represents a welcome return for the arts under a theme which will resonate with everyone.

There will be more than 90 events outdoors and online from May 1 and then safely back on stage from May 17 to 31. 30 events will offer free tickets.

All events will be managed with social distancing measures in place. Events and installations will be in locations from Brighton to Worthing – all reflecting Lemn’s vision: namely that following a year of momentous tragedy, disruption and hardship, the arts in general and this Festival in particular, will play a primary role in the healing of communities and in the care we show for ourselves and to each other. This year’s programme abounds with fun, enjoyment and curiosity, alongside serious reflection but above all will give hope that a brighter future is on the way, he promises. 94 events, performances and installations will take place from May 1 to 31, as specially commissioned online projects, as livestreams and across multiple outdoor and indoor locations.

From May 17, provided government guidelines allow, live indoor and outdoor performances will open for socially distanced audiences in venues that will re-open for the first time since 2020. All events will be equipped for social distancing, including reduced capacity seating, bookings in household bubbles and full safety measures implemented across all sites. Artists have responded to the theme of care and to their own experiences of the last year to create newly commissioned work that involves, engages and inspires. This year’s festival will feature ten world and UK premieres and commissions: new work by the actress Jane Horrocks; theatre directors Neil Bartlett, Tim Crouch and Peter Sellars; performances from classical artists Roderick Williams, Paul Lewis, Jessie Montgomery and Isata Kanneh-Mason; musicians Le Gateau Chocolat, Eliza Carthy and Gwenno; visual artist Olafur Eliasson; comedians Josie Long and Mark Watson; author Jacqueline Wilson and poet Michael Rosen.

Guest director Lemn Sissay said: “After such a difficult year for everyone, I am thrilled and proud to be sharing this programme as guest director. The range of events on offer is incredible and I’m honoured to have some of my favourite artists taking part, presenting opportunities to reflect and discuss what’s been happening socially and politically. There are also plenty of events that are simply joyful and celebratory, giving everyone the chance to enjoy themselves and be inspired by the arts.”

Andrew Comben, chief executive of Brighton Festival, added: “This year’s festival programme really does have something for everyone to enjoy in a safe way that will connect on so many different levels. We have completely rethought the festival to work in these circumstances, and although we realise that many of our regular festival audiences won’t be able to join us this year, we hope our online events will bring a festival experience to them.”

Guest director Lemn Sissay’s Brighton Festival commission, Tell Me Something About Family, is an online conversation that will connect people through the complexity and variety of what family can mean. From his own personal experience of growing up without a family, Sissay is inviting the public, along with other artists, friends and peers, to share their personal memories and ‘light up the world with stories, phrases or sayings about family’ via a new website.

Lemn Sissay c. Jamie MacMillian

Family is also celebrated in the world premiere of Yolk & Aliens, a unique personal memory shop set in Brighton’s Dukes Lane. Co-created by actress Jane Horrocks, her musician daughter Molly Vivian, artist Francesca Levi and designer Camilla Clarke, visitors will experience Horrocks’ own story through three films that reflect on her role as a mother, the relationship with her mother who has Alzheimer’s and by asking visitors to reflect on their own memories.

Brighton’s Theatre Royal will be transformed into an immersive and intimate theatrical experience that will run from sunrise to sunset over one day. Acknowledging a year of collective grief and courage, Tenebrae: Lessons Learnt in Darkness has been brought together for the festival by theatre director Neil Bartlett, award-winning lighting designer Paule Constable and composer Chris Shutt. Inspired by the church ritual in which lights are gradually extinguished and the building recedes into darkness, the theatre space will be filled with sound and light, culminating at sunset with a uniquely-staged performance of Couperin’s haunting Leçons de ténèbres by two soprano voices.

Brighton-based theatre artist Tim Crouch digitally reinterprets BS Johnson’s celebrated novel House Mother Normal. Set within a care home, a group of elderly residents each recall their past and narrate their terrifying present, in a series of nine monologues presented by Crouch as online performances and in a special physical installation in an empty shop.

American theatre director Peter Sellars will present an online world premiere of a multi-disciplinary filmed performance created in response to COVID-19. Based on a passage from the Buddhist text, Vimalakirti Sutra, This Body is so impermanent... was made in isolation by a group of artists on three continents, coming together to create an hour-long meditation.

Following a challenging year for young people and freelance creatives unable to perform and work, emerging artists and projects developed in collaboration with community arts organisations will be given a spotlight to shine, from Herstory, a creative writing project for women to tell their experiences of lockdown that will be displayed as poems and stories around the city to The Exchange, which brings young people together with internationally acclaimed artists to create new work in an online event.

Several projects will offer an element of public interaction in order to create the art work itself.

The Candle Project installation with artist Abigail Conway is created with the help of visitors to The Spire in Kemptown. Participants can write a personal message which will be encased inside a beeswax candle and placed amongst the growing collection inside the church setting. A lighting ceremony will mark a significant moment as the project draws to a close and the candles melt together.

Families and friends will be celebrated in Arrivals & Departures, an interactive artwork by Yara & Davina located in Royal Pavilion Gardens that will ask the public to nominate a loved one to commemorate their birth or death. Names will be displayed on a digital billboard as a visual reminder of the joy and fragility of life.

Over a series of four days, an outdoor art canvas will slowly reveal a giant portrait! Robot Selfie asks the public to upload their favourite photo online which will be recreated by a painting robot, bringing people together from all over the world in one big selfie.

Art outdoors and across locations

From Brighton sea front to the industrial backdrop of Shoreham port; from the peaceful setting of Stanmer Woods to city centre streets, audiences can experience art in everyday settings and in unexpected pop-up sites.

Artist Ray Lee brings the world premiere of Points of Departure, a spectacular series of mechanical sculptures that will light up the night-time backdrop of Shoreham Port. The large-scale structures sing out a sci-fi symphony that will mesmerise visitors as they walk around the outdoor installation.

A lantern-lit trail in Stanmer Woods will lead to Under the Wild Wood Tree, a magical sensory experience featuring light sculptures by Same Sky and hypnotic choral works performed by Brighton Festival Chorus for small guided groups.

A bike ride around the city turns into a fun, thought-provoking and interactive game with Brighton based digital artists Blast Theory. Rider Spoke takes cyclists on a guided tour using a smartphone app, with narrators leading them to search for secret hiding places.  

The popular Children’s Parade, which traditionally marks the opening day of the Festival, will be adapted into a visual spectacle along Brighton’s streets with colourful artwork made by local schools and a photographic history to celebrate over 30 years of the event.

Our Place returns for the fifth year to Brighton’s communities in Hangleton, East Brighton and a new third location in Moulescoomb and Bevendean, with an invitation to local residents to participate in events, activities or watch a series of free performances presented by Without Walls outdoor artists.

Andrew Comben, chief executive of Brighton Festival, added: “This programme has taken an enormous effort to bring together and we are so grateful for Lemn’s direction and all of the artists and behind the scenes creatives who have risen to the challenge of adapting and re-shaping their work to be delivered in line with regulations and guidance. We are enormously proud to be in a city that believes in the value of the arts, both economically and socially, and to have such strong support from Brighton & Hove City Council, Arts Council England and all our sponsors and donors. We are also grateful to have local audiences and supporters who we know are looking forward to experiencing the arts again and we can’t wait to welcome them back.”

Brighton & Hove City Council leader Phélim Mac Cafferty added: “Brighton Festival is always a special time for the city and this year even more so, as we move cautiously towards the easing of lockdown. We still have much to do to stop Covid-19, but with powerful wayfinders such as the festival to guide us, we’ll find comfort for these times of grief and the opportunity to reflect on what brings us together rather than what keeps us apart. The festival promises to be a veritable feast for the senses and I welcome that owing to the obvious restrictions, it is going ahead, shaped and necessarily different because of the pandemic. We must all play our part to enjoy culture safely.”