Brighton Festival 2020 promises togetherness in an era of “crazy tribalism.”

As Brighton Festival 2020 guest director Lemn Sissay says, we’re living through an era of “crazy tribalism.”

Wednesday, 12th February 2020, 9:55 am
Updated Wednesday, 12th February 2020, 9:57 am
Lemn Sissay c. Jamie MacMillian

For three weeks in May, the Brighton Festival might just offer the perfect riposte – three weeks of genuine community and genuine togetherness.

British and Ethiopian poet, playwright, broadcaster and speaker Lemn has just unveiled a thrilling programme for Brighton Festival 2020.

From May 2 to 24, England’s largest annual, curated multi-arts festival will go under the banner “Imagine Nation” – “the whole world in one celebration here at Brighton Festival.” “We are living in times where tribalism seems to be the most important thing at the other end of the day – times of separation and conflict. Tribalism… that’s what it is.

“But the idea of a festival is to bring people together so that they can experience something special about themselves and about being together. Theatre needs an audience if it is going to fulfil itself; a book needs a reader if it is going to fulfil itself. And it is the same with dance and the same with an art gallery.”

We live in times when we are too often urged to “stay in lane”: “But life is not like that.”

Again, that’s the importance of festivals.

“When you are performing or when you are at an art gallery, the point is that the audience is the true boss. There is something about an audience.

“When you look out from the stage, there is a certain point where an audience combines as one. And it is a beautiful experience to be on that stage, maybe with others, and to see that audience join together.”

From all different walks of life, the audience converges and feels something as a whole: “And that is the great privilege of performing on stage when you see that happen. And that is the gift that you want to bring to a festival. In an era of crazy tribalism, you hope that for one month we can all come together.”

And Lemn is thrilled that it is in Brighton that he is getting that chance to deliver.

He is guest director this year because, as he says, he got the call: “But really you could say that I first got the call about 20-25 years ago… or longer… maybe about 30 years ago. I came here with Henry Normal on tour. We came to perform here as a group of poets and singer-songwriters. I don’t know if it was part of the festival or not, but since then I have performed and read and given speeches in various different environments here.

“I have spoken for social services here. I have read poetry at the Komedia. I have been to schools and also to Sussex University a few times. And if you are a poet and a performer, then Brighton is like a beacon.”

And that inside understanding of the place is important to bring to the guest director’s role. But so too is it important to bring outside eyes: “You have got to bring something new to the table.”

Appreciation of Brighton is key, nonetheless: “The sea is such a powerful presence here. And the light is such a powerful presence here, and you have got all those issues of art and creativity that can make a difference. You have got a community that wants to be enlivened. You have got women’s groups and LGBTQ groups and you have got the working class community. And you have got people that have come here from London. You pretty much have got it all in Brighton.

“Each area has its own pluses and minuses and that’s what makes community. There is a Republic of Brighton, and there are only a few other places in the country that you could say that about. Liverpool is one. Manchester is one. But in Brighton, you are not in addition to anything else. Being in that position on the coast, you are already connected to the rest of the country.

“The Festival is for the community that are here first and foremost, and then it is for the community that will come here to enjoy Brighton and the Festival. The Festival is there to stimulate and to excite and it is supposed to trigger off new ideas. It is supposed to make people smile and laugh and cry and dance and sing and think. It is supposed to make you want to bring your friends. It is supposed to inspire.”

Tickets go on sale to Brighton Dome & Brighton Festival members at 7.30am, Wednesday, February 12 and general sale at 9am, Wednesday, February 19.


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