It’s May, near enough, and May in Brighton is a very special time. It’s when England’s largest annual multi-arts festival springs into life and the city welcomes an influx of artists and performers of every conceivable persuasion. From comedy to contemporary dance, opera to literary debate, site-specific theatre to sound installations, no other festival in England offers such a wide variety of cutting-edge creative experiences.
Sound and Vision
This year’s Guest Artistic Director is composer and artist Brian Eno, who will be presenting his constantly evolving audio-visual installation 77 Million Paintings; an ambient soundscape interweaved with a mutating mélange of hand-drawn paintings randomly displayed on luminous screens in the ethereal environment of Brighton’s Fabrica venue – a deconsecrated Regency church. Variously described as ‘extraordinarily beautiful’ and ‘gorgeous’, it has led to snaking queues of people wherever it’s been shown.
Other highlights of the 2010 festival include the Children’s Parade, a joyful and much-loved community event involving dozens of local schools, American composer Philip Glass leading his own ensemble with a rare live performance of his four-hour masterpiece Music in 12 Parts, Martin Amis reading from his latest novel The Pregnant Widow, an outdoor showcase of aerial acrobatics performed by Britain’s leading contemporary circus company NoFit State, and Seeing Things – a series of four intense and immersive ‘encounters’ performed in the underground Basement venue, with only one audience member per show.
On The Fringes Where the Brighton Festival ends, the Brighton Festival Fringe takes over. While the festival proper is a series of curated and programmed events, the Fringe applies no such rigour in its selection criteria. Indeed, it applies no artistic judgement and has no selection criteria at all. Its policy of allowing any registrant to put on any event in any art form whatsoever enables new work to gain fresh audiences, and it’s now the third largest open-access festival in the world – and growing. During 2009’s event there were more than 700 shows and performances across 240 venues and that’s set to be surpassed this year.
Highlights include an intimate production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest performed inside Brighton’s famous Grand Hotel, the ever-popular Ladyboys of Bangkok and the fabulous Insect Circus where you can marvel at (human) Dancing Snails, Worm Charmers and Cheeky Ladybirds spinning, climbing and juggling for your amusement.
Something that’s not strictly part of either festival – more like a sister event – is many Brightonians’ favourite: Artists Open Houses. This completely free visual arts festival runs across all May weekends and offers residents and visitors an amazing opportunity to view and purchase unique artworks in the artists’ own homes and studios.
It’s a fantastic event for lovers of original art and crafts, but even better for the just plain nosey – some of Brighton and Hove’s most beautiful and eclectic houses take part, and many of them lay on tea and cake in their gardens too. More than 200 venues are divided into easily-navigable ‘trails’ and meandering from house to house is a great way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon.
My personal favourites in terms of both house and art are the Ben Allen house on the Seven Dials trail, the Into The Woods house on the Fiveways trail, and Stables Studio, a fascinating venue and member of Hove Arts.
Brighton is just one hour from London by train. There are plenty of good value chain hotels and bed & breakfasts, and a burgeoning line in boutique hotels too. Check out Square or Kemp Townhouse in buzzing Kemp Town, Hotel Una in central Regency Square, or Brighton’s self-styled sauciest stopover Hotel Pelirocco.
Some of Brighton and Hove’s best dining experiences can be found in its pubs, so wander out to one of the city’s residential districts for lunch. Remember to save some stamina for shopping though – Brighton is home to one of the country’s most unique and fiercely independent shopping scenes.
Are you from Brighton or have you visited recently? Can you offer any more tips for visitors in Festival-season? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.