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Brighton Breezy Festival Fun

By • West End
Next week's National Theatre production of Goldoni's A Servant of Two Masters is renamed One Man, Two Guv'nors and relocated to Brighton, a place whose very name conveys a spirit of dodgy behaviour, high spirits and hedonistic self-indulgence.

As Keith Waterhouse famously said, Brighton seemes always to be in a position to help the police with their enquiries. Which is why, of course, it is such a perfect place for a festival. The only slight problem is that, unlike Edinburgh, for instance, which can be as gloomy as sin and as quiet as the grave outside of festival time, Brighton prospers in a permanent state of festival all year round.

I made a flying visit yesterday to support Daisy Campbell in her solo celebration of her father, Ken, but managed to take in a couple of other shows, too, en route to Daisy's gig at the Catalyst Club.

One of the most distinctive features of the Brighton Festival for the past thirty years has been the Artists Open Houses scheme, in which the public is invited into the artist's front room, or studio, to inspect work both finished and in progress.

It was originally the idea of painter Ned Hoskins, who lives in the Fiveways area and, at the suggestion of my friend Lianne Jarrett, I went along to Ned's house. Not only that, I bought one of his paintings, thereby defeating the purpose of what is probably Britain's biggest free visual arts event.

For the past three years, a curated partner mini-festival to Artsists Open Houses has sprung up in the form of HOUSE, which offers informal opportunities to see visual arts interesting projects in unexpected places. And one of these, this year, is Still Life: An Audience with Henrietta Moraes, written and performed by Sue MacLaine in the life drawing studio at the Phoenix Gallery.

Moraes, who died in 1999, was a model and muse to both Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, and latterly the lover of Maggi Hambling. Given these associations, MacLaine's text is disappointingly discreet and uninformative.

But the show itself is remarkable. MacLaine stands naked before us, striking some of the poses painted by Freud and Bacon, and invites us to "Draw me now, and steal my soul." I've never felt less self-conscious, or more superfluous, as a critic taking notes as those twenty-odd people around me -- mostly women -- started sketching Sue's limbs and profile with astonishing speed and delicacy. A critic's doodlings dwindled in comparison.

MacLaine has a pleasingly full figure, an ample posterior, cropped hair and semi-shaved pudenda, and some interesting tattoos on her left shoulder and right hip and thigh. She strikes a pose and announces "Five minutes," standing or lying stock still for exactly that period on her small timer device. While she holds each pose in what seems to be a state of utter peace and serenity, you notice the elegance of line in her body, the pronounced bone structure in her feet, the composed facial expression -- her face is puckish, pretty, accommodating -- that suggests both dominance and sacrifice.

The only play I've known giving anything like an approximate idea of this extraordinary experience of beauty and concentration was David Storey's Life Class, but that forgotten, underrated 1974 play was more about the painters, not the painted. As indeed was Lee Hall's recent, ever-touring hit, The Pitmen Painters.

After just seventy minutes Sue MacLaine walked naked from the room, as the audience continued scratching away on their drawing boards and easels. At the moment, Still Life creates an unresolved tension between subject and artists, and I imagine the drawing experience has been allowed preference over the dramatic. Maybe that's the point. The show remains intriguing nonetheless, and I'm very glad I saw it.

I just had time to beetle back up the road towards the station and take in an audio installation in the Nightingale Theatre above the Grand Central public house. This was a six-minute recorded reading by Ashley Cook of Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square, the chapter in which the alcoholic drifter George Harvey Bone overhears Netta Longdon in an adjacent Brighton hotel bedroom with another man. Part voyeuristic, part self-examining, we listen to Bone's tortured outpouring while seated on the double bed, or by the cupboard, several of us awkwardly fidgeting with nosiness and embarrassment. Bone's voice seeps into our skin.

Again, this was an unusual experience, and one I was happy to have had and even happier to have stopped having. This kind of work allows an audience to participate to whatever extent it pleases. But the detail and atmosphere in the room created by HOUSE in partnership with Cine-City, which presents the Brighton Film Festival, is both creepy and unforgettable.

Henrietta Moraes, Patrick Hamilton and, for that matter, Ken Campbell were all the sort of seriously bohemian, raffish and exceptional characters for whom the Brighton Festival might have been invented. They could not be contained in normal, everyday life.  They belong to Brighton, which, of course, has the only Green Party MP in the House of Commons, Caroline Lucas, and the only Green city council in the country. 

For the past three years, the festival has had a distinguished "guest" director: the sculptor Anish Kapoor, the musician Brian Eno and, this year, the Burmese human rights activist, Aung San Suu Kyi; and everyone I spoke to, participant and audience member alike, feels touched and involved by her presence on the poster.

As Daisy Campbell launched into a speech of Lady Macbeth in pidgin English, before explaining her father's split performance personality of the inept housewife and the spanking squire, you felt that she, too, was in the right place, and certainly in the right festival.


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