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This year's Brighton Festival has a German theme & child-appeal

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There's a strong German theme running through the programme for the 2013 Brighton Festival, thanks in no small part to the input of poet and broadcaster Michael Rosen.

The latest in a line of guest directors that has included Brian Eno, Anish Kapoor and Aung San Suu Kyi, the former Children’s Laureate has – perhaps unsurprisingly – chosen to place a children’s book at the heart of this year’s Festival: Erich Kästner’s Berlin-based thriller Emil and the Detectives. Published in 1929, the book provides the jumping-off point for an exploration of the work of German artists of the inter-war period.

Rosen, speaking at the Festival launch alongside chair Polly Toynbee and chief executive Andrew Comben, explained that many of this year’s events would be looking back on the Weimar Republic, the “time of great hope” which immediately preceded the Third Reich. Such events include Musik Kabarett, a celebration of Brecht and Weill by Nina Hagen, David McAlmont and Jamie McDermott, and the showing in four instalments of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Weimar-set television serial Berlin Alexanderplatz.

The post-Weimar era has inevitably cast a long shadow, but, in Rosen’s view: “We do Germany a disservice by simply seeing it through the prism of Nazism… Germany existed for hundreds of years before the Holocaust. It has existed since the Holocaust. Germany should not be defined by it. … I’m not German, I have no German background at all – all my forebears were Polish or Romanian – but there are many aspects of German culture that I love, there are many aspects of German culture that we all love, it informs our lives in many ways. …

“All art is inter-cultural. We quite often make the mistake of talking about Shakespeare as a great English playwright; well, for instance, you can’t think of Shakespeare as separate from Italian culture; Italianisms run through his plays – like Brighton rock. Inter-culturalism is important, and making those inter-culturalisms specific is one of the jobs which a festival can do.”

The poet’s input on the 2013 programme will be evident in three strands of activity. “Sense and Non-sense” events will investigate how words are used, with reinterpretations of classic texts like Beowulf and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, while the German term “Vergiss Mein Nicht” (forget me not) will inspire events around the theme of memory and its loss – as for instance in The Disappearances Project, where the Sydney-based company version 1.0 will explore the effects of long-term missing-persons cases on individuals, families and communities.

And then there’s “Emil’s World”. As well as inspiring the various Weimar-themed events, Emil and the Detectives will be the subject of a Young City Reads project, in which citizens young and old will be encouraged to read and discuss the book. Telling of a young boy’s adventures and misadventures in Berlin as he seeks to recover some stolen money, Kästner’s classic tale is described by Rosen as an “incredible pioneering book”, not least for its thrillingly realistic descriptions of Berlin at a time when most children’s books were set in sanitised fantasylands.

Comben identified some of the other potential highlights of this year’s programme, including Zero, a dance piece by the Clod Ensemble which “was inspired by King Lear but branches out in all sorts of other directions, including ruminations on the natural world and disasters”; the UK premiere of Lola Arias' My Life After, in which a company of Argentinian actors born in the 70s and 80s will use old clothes, letters and photographs to recreate scenes from their parents’ lives; and, to mark the centenary of Benjamin Britten, a staging of The Canticles at the Theatre Royal Brighton, under the direction of Neil Bartlett.

Rosen himself will take a central part in The Great Enormo – A Kerfuffle in B Flat for Orchestra, Wasps and Soprano, created in collaboration with conductor/composer James Morgan and singer/composer Juliette Pochin. As Rosen explained: “James and Juliette approached me, pointing out that it’s been some years since there was a new piece introducing young people to the orchestra. Britten, of course, created The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, and there was Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf – they’re creaking a little bit.” Hence Enormo Biggins, in which the poet/narrator will help the titular character create a them tune for his time-travelling theme park. He also expects to be pressed into service playing the gong and vacuum-cleaner.

Rosen’s influence on the 2013 Brighton Festival extends even to the image adorning the publicity: a Bauhaus-style hommage in monochrome featuring two open palms overdubbed by a pair of gaping eyes. The eyes are clearly Rosen’s, and on closer inspection the hands too are identifiable as the ones the poet waves about so enthusiastically when he speaks. The only problem, he says: “is that I can’t distinguish between the wrinkles under my eyes and the wrinkles on my hands – are they the same? There’s a whole anatomical issue there. But no, I absolutely adore surrealism, I think it’s wonderful; I love the surrealist photography of Man Ray and that tradition – Raoul Hausmann and others – so for me to be a surreal photo, believe you me, I kvell – that’s yiddish for ‘swell with pride’. That picture is a picture of someone kvelling.”

The Brighton Festival 2013 runs from 4-26 May (www.brightonfestival.org)


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