From light into darkness: acknowledging collective grief at Brighton Festival

From first light to gathering dusk, a ravishing installation takes over Brighton Theatre Royal for the Brighton Festival, acknowledging a year of collective grief and courage in which so many have felt their lives slipping into the shadows.

Tenebrae - Neil Bartlett - Brighton Festival 2021
Tenebrae - Neil Bartlett - Brighton Festival 2021

The live element on Saturday, May 22 sold out within hours – and will be attended by 250 people on the day in socially-distanced groups of 25. But the wider public can still enjoy the build-up to it online. A series of 15 short graphic films featuring some of its sounds and words will be available on the Brighton Festival website from Saturday, May 8 to Saturday, May 22. The same link will also give you access to 15 specially commissioned poems, all by Brighton writers, that reflect on the themes of the piece.

Inspired by the liturgy of Tenebrae — the church ritual in which lights are gradually extinguished and the building recedes into darkness — a team of artists will fill the theatre with sound and light, inviting the groups present to experience a haunting descent into blackness.

Tenebrae: Lessons Learnt in Darkness is a Brighton Festival commission created by Miriam Allan (singer), Neil Bartlett (creator and director), Paule Constable (creator and lighting designer), Isabelle Haile (soprano), Rosaleigh Harvey-Otway (film-maker and digital producer), Reiko Ichise (viola da gamba), Joseph McHardy (musical director), Akila Richards (community writing co-curator) and Christopher Shutt (creator and sound designer). The 15 writers who are contributing are: Maria Amidu, Jenny Arach, Sheila Auguste, Yvonne Canham-Spence, Helen Dixon, Josephine Hall, Sam Kenyon Hamp, Oluwafemi Hughes-Jonas, Joseph Lee, Simon Maddrell, Lucie Naish, Georgina Parke, Mark Price, Zaid S Sethi and Sea Sharp.

Neil Bartlett said: “There are really two starting points for this, and one is the actual building, the Theatre Royal The Theatre Royal has been dark now for more days in a row than it ever has since it first opened. It is an extraordinary place. It is right in the middle of Brighton. It is one of the best-known, best-loved, busiest buildings in Brighton, and yet since the first lockdown it has been this dark empty space. And what does that mean? What does that represent?

“It is our loss. It is our sadness. It is our absence. It is our darkness. And it is our silence. And it is our grief and in that building it is tangible when you remember that that building’s purpose is to be light and filled with people and yet it is empty and dark.

“The other starting point was a piece of music, Couperin’s haunting Leçons de Ténèbres. Our title is a punning translation of the title. Couperin created that piece of music for a church service that was originally something that happened in Holy Week called Tenebrae where what happens is that all the lights in the building are put out one by one until the congregation are in darkness. He created this extraordinary piece of music to accompany these 45 minutes where you go from light to darkness, to create a piece of music where you can meditate on what it means to be plunged into darkness.

“I was talking to Paule Constable who is one of the world’s most famous lighting designers, about this piece of music. She thought what an extraordinary idea it was to put the lights out and to think about this gradual process until nothing is left. I sent her the CD and she said we should do something with this, with the Brighton Festival in mind.”

“Paule has created a sequence of lights in the building which is the same length and shape as the original piece of music.”

Christopher Shutt has created a soundscape which will include the work of 15 local writers whose voices will speak of some of ways in which we’ve all been living with the lights going out over the past challenging year.

“We have spent most of this year with Akila Richards (community writing co-curator) working with 15 writers who live or work in Brighton. The youngest is 19 and the oldest in her 70s. The voices come from many different communities. We came together as a group working online. We spent a month listening to the music and reflecting on the music and about the idea of the world gradually turning to darkness. Everybody brought their own story to it, their own experiences of the past year. And everybody, each of the 15, created a poem responding to the crisis.”

Short graphic films have been created too, and these can all be enjoyed on the Brighton Festival website in the build-up to the (sold-out) event.