Changing times at the Brighton Festival

Neil Bartlett celebrates changing times with his Brighton Festival retrospective recital What Can You Do?

But it’s a piece which also questions whether we have changed enough.

As Neil, who grew up in Chichester, says, on a sunny Sunday in Brighton, sitting with friends and family over lunch, it can seem that there is not much wrong with the world.

But for any two gay guys to go out holding hands after dark in any big city would be another matter entirely.

Equally, the pronouncements of certain reactionary bishops on the morning news will often have Neil spluttering over his cornflakes.

One of Britain’s most prolific and provocative theatre-makers, Neil will be looking both backwards and forwards for Brighton, revisiting his formative works and also premiering a new solo piece specially commissioned by the Brighton Festival (Theatre Royal, Saturday, May 26, 9.30pm).

“I have done a string of pieces for the Brighton Festival, and I was asked to do another piece. I very much wanted to do it at the Theatre Royal which is a venue I love, and then I thought why don’t I do it myself.

“All the way through my career, underneath the bigger, more public projects, I have done over the years a lot of solo pieces where it was just me standing up alone in front of an audience in all sorts of places - mostly warehouses or night clubs or public demonstrations. I thought ‘what if I put them all together and what if I took them into a theatre?’’

The result is a show covering the best part of 30 years, beginning with the earliest pieces from 83-84 and going through to the premiere of the new piece on the night.

“I will do it chronologically. Obliquely it will tell the story of incredible change. The world has changed enormously since 83. The very early pieces date from the first shock waves of when the first impact of the Aids epidemic arrived in this country. Back in 83-84, we were in the middle of an emergency. People needed to speak out, and I was one of those voices, along with thousands of others, saying ‘What is going on? What are we doing?’

“Although the epidemic continues and amazingly shows no signs of decreasing in this country, the circumstances are now completely different. In 83, I was 25. I was standing up on stage in the spotlight trying to get people to put money in a bucket to support crisis work for the first victims. It’s very different now in 2012. What is the difference? I want to ask that question - ‘this is what it is like now, it is very different… isn’t it?’

“Back then, people were really angry and really afraid. But scratch the surface now, and there is still a lot of that about.”