Brighton Festival set to open with the theme of care

The poster for the 2020 Brighton Festival is framed and hanging on Lemn Sissay’s wall – the poster for the festival that didn’t happen.

Lemn Sissay c. Jamie MacMillian
Lemn Sissay c. Jamie MacMillian

Which makes 2021 all the sweeter.

Lemn was the guest director for the 2020 festival and all the plans were in place. Then the pandemic struck and everything was off. Very quickly, however, Lemn was reconfirmed as guest director for 2021 – and at last he is thrilled to get the chance to deliver.

Brighton Festival 2021 will offer more than 90 events – outdoors and online from May 1 and then safely back on stage from May 17 to 31, provided government guidelines allow. All events will be equipped for social distancing, including reduced capacity seating, bookings in household bubbles and full safety measures implemented across all sites.

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    Lemn has set the theme of care – and artists have responded to it, some of them drawing on their own experiences of the past 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; and author Jacqueline Wilson and poet Michael Rosen.

    “I am just really pleased that the team wanted me back!” Lemn says. “It was a tricky time. They could easily have gone for someone else, but they wanted me back and it was very easy to say yes to. I just feel so lucky. The festival was snatched away from us at the last minute last time, but now we are going back into the sunshine again. We are all feeling the pull of spring. Spring is breaking through and every day is getting warmer.”

    Memories of the tough times remain, inevitably: “I lost my diary. It was suddenly clear. I was supposed to be travelling. I was in shock, like so many people. Everything shut down. I lost 80 per cent of the work that I hoped to do. I am an artist, a creative and have been my entire adult life. I was supposed to be touring Australia, and that was cancelled. Things are not coming back. Not everything. I don’t think things will ever be the same again as they were before the pandemic.

    “But as human beings, we are incredibly resourceful. I think if we can get through this, we can get through anything. But it has definitely changed me. The theme of the festival is care, and by that I really mean looking after ourselves and thinking about others. Those two things are so important. Someone said to me the important thing is to ‘take it easy but take it all’, and I think this whole thing has reminded me how important it is to care for yourself as well as other people. When the pandemic happened, I was faced most of all with my own thoughts, my own moods, my own attitudes to the rest of the world and to friends and to who I am. When the pandemic happened, we all went into an emotional hibernation, and that’s the beauty of this festival. We are now coming out of hibernation.

    “I think we were all caught short by what happened. I don’t think we were complacent. We were in the process of living, of getting through day to day, getting through the work issues, and I think we all worked so hard that it was easy for us not to see what was really important. And I do think that if the pandemic did anything, it really reminded us what we all need to get by.”

    Lemn’s own 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.