Neil Bartlett OBE, is an award-winning British director, performer, translator, novelist and writer. He is one of the founding members of Gloria, a production company established in 1988. His work has garnered several awards, including the 1985 Perrier Award (for More Bigger Snacks Now), the Time Out Dance Umbrella Award (for A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep), a Writers Guild Award (for Sarrasine), a Time Out Theatre Award (for A Judgement in Stone), and the Special Jury Prize at the Cork Film Festival (for Now That It's Morning). His production of The Dispute won a Time Out Award for Best Production in the West End and the 1999 TMA Best Touring Production award. He was appointed an OBE in 2000 for his services to the arts.


Thirty years after setting up his first theatrical collective, Neil will be making a rare, one-night-only, return to the stage as part of this year’s Brighton Festival. His retrospective recital, What Can You Do?, will see him take a characteristically personal and passionate look back at his solo work and will conclude with the World Premiere of the title piece, specially commissioned by the Brighton Festival.


Before we talk about your past work, what can we expect to see this year?

 This year I am coming back to the Theatre Royal, where I have made a piece for the last two years. It’s a space that I love working in and this year I am going to perform myself, which is not something I do much these days. In fact I can’t remember the last time I had an outing on stage so it’s a rare opportunity for people to see me “back in action” as it were.


I started my career, just about 30 years ago now, as a solo performer and that is something that I have touched on throughout the years. These days I am more likely to be found as a director working in places like the National or the RSC, but there has always been this thread of me occasionally making a small scale solo piece. This show is just myself, standing on an empty stage taking a look back and creating an evening where I will revive or recreate, if you like, some of the pieces I made in the very early days.


From the very beginning of your career?

 Yes. The first piece I am going to perform is one that I made way back in 1983 or 1984 and then I will chart my work right though the last thirty years and then, to finish off the evening, Andrew Comben, the Chief Executive of the Brighton Festival, has commissioned me to create a new solo performance which I’m writing and that piece gives the evening it’s title – What Can you Do?


So it’s a whistle-stop tour of my work over the last three decades and as well as doing about half a dozen of the pieces themselves I’m going to tell some of the stories of where they were performed, and how they were performed, because when I started making these pieces I was more likely to be found performing in a nightclub, or on a demonstration. Indeed these pieces have been played all over the place from Trafalgar Square to a nightclub in the backstreets of Manchester to Madame Jojo’s to the Vauxhall Tavern or to the Royal Court.


It’s been quite a journey and it feels like a good point in my work to look back and take stock at, not only how I have changed in the last 30 years, but also how the world has changed.


How has your life as a performer changed?

 Back then, if you wanted to do a piece that spoke in a way that I wanted to speak, about what was going on in my life and the lives of everyone I knew at the time, which was the beginnings of the British AIDS epidemic, no one was going to ask you to do that in the west end so I ended up saying “Just give me warehouse and I’ll put on a show.”


We found, for the performance of A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep a derelict warehouse in a street tucked round the back of Tower Bridge and, these are the kind of stories I will tell in the show, I remember that we had to put a loudspeaker outside of the building and play loud music because it was the only way that people could find the venue.


My work is like that, it pops up everywhere. I have a memory of being on a platform in Trafalgar Square, with this year’s guest Director, Vanessa Redgrave. I think it was at one of the Clause 28 rallies that happened.


Is it important to you to have your work associated with that kind of cause?

Well, this is one particular strand of my work which does talk about what is happening, what we are doing, what we are not doing and what we can do but I could do another whole retrospective of my work which could be about costume dramas with fabulous women in them. I could feature my shows with Lyndsay Duncan, Sheila Hancock, Joanna Lumley or Dawn French and then you’d be asking me why I never deal with the contemporary world. There are many different strands to what I do and, for this show, I’m picking on a specific one.


The very first piece in the show, which I performed way back in 1983, is called Where is Love? That’s the title of a famous song from Lionel Bart’s Oliver and I use that as the soundtrack of the piece, and it was me standing up in front of a nightclub full of people and asking, “What is happening right now? To us, and to all our friends.” You see people were dying and some people thought that it was a good thing. There were a lot of people, back then, who thought that the more gay people who dropped down dead, the better. If fact some even thought that, in an ideal world, it would be better if all of us had died. So I asked where love is, where compassion is and where care is.


As well as covering your past work, you are performing a World Premiere. What is that piece about?

It’s a looking back and it’s a looking forward. My titles are often questions and I’ve called this piece, What Can You Do? because there are two ways that we use that phrase. We could say, “The world is going to hell in a handcart, what can you do?” meaning that we may as well all give up. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wakes up and, by the end of the 8 o’clock news wishes that they had a gas oven and not an electric one. However, there is also another use of that phrase, when you ask someone, “What can YOU do?”


Imagine that you and I had met in 1983 and I said to you that in 29 years time we would be living in a country where Civil Partnership is not only legal but, in lots of towns and cities, including our home city of Brighton, it’s pretty much normal. If someone had said to you that your world would have changed out of all recognition, you would have asked them how the hell that could be achieved. Was someone going to wave a magic wand?    


No one waved a magic wand but a lot of people, most of them doing small things, sometimes coming together in huge groups but sometimes just people standing up for themselves and making a little difference. Turning round to someone and saying, “Actually, I don’t want you to say that” or “Don’t use that word in front of my children” or “Why are you staring at me?”


That’s what the new piece is about, it’s about saying that if you look back then maybe that will help you look forward and hopefully there will be a few laughs in it too.


Neil Bartlett’s retrospective and World Premiere, What Can You Do? appears at the Theatre Royal Brighton on Saturday 26 May at 9.30pm