If you fancy a pre-Edinburgh festival fix or don’t want to travel that far, head to the Brighton Festival this month where you’ll find a feast of artistic delights which easily rival what is on offer in the Scottish capital. From an ambitious production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in a disused warehouse to Gone But Not Forgotten, an equally engaging fringe piece in a small terrace house on Shakespeare Street in nearby Hove, you’ll be spoiled for choice.
With over 700 events, Festivals in Brighton is England’s largest annual arts festival and encompasses Brighton Festival, Brighton Fringe, Artists Open Houses and HOUSE. The Festival has shown world-class work since its birth in 1967 with the UK’s first exhibition of Concrete Poetry and performances by Anthony Hopkins, Lawrence Olivier and Yehudi Menuhin and this year is no exception. We visited the festivals on the opening weekend and rediscovered the many pleasures of Brighton at the same time.
We stayed at Nineteen, a cute B&B, minutes from the seafront and the new Brighton Wheel and within easy walking distance of many of the festival events. After a champagne breakfast brought to our room, we headed to Brighton’s landmark of pleasure, the Royal Pavilion, a John Nash building commissioned by the Prince Regent to house his extravagant parties and entertainments. To describe the Royal Pavilion as opulent is a major understatement with its grand exterior and interiors inspired by the beauty of the Far East.
With four different festivals to dip into over one weekend, we only saw a fraction of what’s on offer. One of our personal highlights was The Rest is Silence, dreamthinkspeak’s interpretation of Hamlet. This world premiere, commissioned by Brighton Festival with LIFT and the Royal Shakespeare Company, will also be showing at Riverside Studios in London 12-23 June. The production uses the original language of Shakespeare in a modern, minimalist setting – a warehouse where the audience stands in the middle of the space surrounded by the actors behind raised glass panels. The panels are lit up individually and seemingly at random, forcing the audience to be continually on the move to follow the action.
Nothing we saw was a traditional theatre piece even when it did involve seating. White Rabbit, Red Rabbit at the Nightingale Theatre, one of the main Fringe venues, was written by an Iranian playwright who has no passport and has never travelled because he didn’t undertake his national service. The play is read by a different actor for every performance and involves audience members being asked to the stage to help with various tasks and email the playwright photos of the performance.
After a number of rather intense performances, we felt we needed some light relief so we signed up for Faulty Towers – the dining experience, where the audience indeed dines with Basil, Sybil and the endearing Spanish waiter Manuel. This production originated at the Adelaide Fringe 15 years ago and after a hilarious couple of hours, it was obvious to us why it has been touring ever since.
Quirky is what you’d expect at a fringe festival and one of the quirkiest shows takes place at the home of singer Jane Bom-Bane who is also renowned for her wonderful mechanical hats. Guests coming for afternoon tea or supper are led up a narrow winding staircase and entertained in each room by several of the 18 poets, singers, puppeteers or dancers commissioned for this event.
Surprisingly Brighton doesn’t have a contemporary art gallery so we were delighted to see HOUSE, a curated visual arts event with a number of commissioned works. This year David Batchelor created Brighton Palermo Remix at the Regency Town House in Brunswick Square connecting the two seaside towns. The site-specific installation is made of timber and coloured lights from the Palermo Festival and seemed appropriate for Brighton’s reputation as a hedonistic destination in Regency times. Taking inspiration from the street as a source of colour and ideas, Batchelor also created Skip, an illuminated skip in a square in the centre of town. If we hadn’t run out of time, we would have checked out Artists Open Houses which offers visitors access to hundreds of artists’ houses and studios.
Our weekend wouldn’t have been complete without some excellent meals and we can happily recommend Oki Nami, a Japanese restaurant co-owned by DJ Fatboy Slim aka Norman Cook. We enjoyed the sushi and sizzling steak in the restaurant and had their signature champagne cocktails infused with ginger in their bar upstairs. The family run Al Duomo offers hearty Italian cooking and friendly service. For brunch, we loved Plateau, an excellent bistro with excellent wines from local Sussex producers.
By Joanne Shurvell
The Brighton Festival ends on May 27
To find out more information about the festivals, visit the following: