Features Published 20 January 2020

A Festival of Brexit

As plans are taking shape for 2022’s £120m post-Brexit arts extravaganza, here are some more outward-looking ways to mark Britain’s exit from the EU.

Alice Saville

A still from Mandy Boylett’s pro-Brexit anthem


The air is thick with the scent of… is it meat pie? Scotch eggs? Some kind of English pork product certainly, sweating pinkly in the weak pale sunlight – just don’t mention gammon. There’s the tinny jingle of bells as morris dancers wend their merry way across the mud. The knights templar are there too, in cod-medieval uniforms wrought from stained bedsheets. This is the Festival of Brexit, and everyone’s welcome, as long as they don’t think Britain’s a place where everyone’s welcome. As the bunting starts to singe in the smoke of a celebratory bonfire, Mandy Boylett takes to the stage to sing her greatest hit; “We’ve voted out so you’d better get the party started!”

The Festival of Brexit probably won’t be like this. The parodies write themselves, because it’s an event that’s mainly slipped into coverage of Brexit as a kind of embarrassingly blunt insult-to-injury joke, like getting pink eye just after you recover from gastric flu. But now it’s made the transition into thing-that’s-actually-happening, with the date set for 2022. And instead of being a village fete horrorshow, it’ll probably be shiny, at-least-superficially-diverse and generally quite heartwarming and nice. Martin Green has been announced as its director; he was Head of Ceremonies for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, and masterminded the 2017 Hull City of Culture. Both ended up being broadly successful exercises in nationbuilding-through-art, ones that dramatised values of inclusion, and the power of community. His diplomatic justification for this new post-Brexit festival is that

“On a very basic level, we are probably due a bit of joy and hope and happiness, and art is really good at that.”

It’s hard to disagree. But it’s equally hard to pretend that Festival of Brexit isn’t about something rather more insidious. It’s a bid to rehabilitate Brexit, to take it from hammy, disastrously ill-planned, overlong moment of political theatrics into something that, like the rather more international projects of the Olympics and City of Culture, is something tidily outward facing. Brexit hasn’t been stage-managed. Festival of Brexit will be.

Britain marked joining the EU in 1973 with a televised beauty contest (‘Miss TV Europe’) and some kids releasing balloons into Snowdonia; environmental pollution and old-school gender politics in one. It all sounds a bit cringe; a half-hearted fizzle which perhaps mirrored the ambivalence of a public who were pretty much evenly split on EU membership.

This time, the budget is £120m, and the government clearly expects fireworks. Green says that the focus will be on “a small amount of very large acts … There will still be tons going on, but when there is special money on the table, you do want to do things which are not normal business.” But which massive acts are going to step forward and be the posterpeople for post-Brexit Britain? Even for the delicious promise of “special money”?

Green has also promised that this will be a festival of “healing and coming together” – even though a lot of EU citizens have already left behind homes and friends in the sustained climate of hostility that followed the Brexit vote.

Words like “healing” are very nice and reassuring, but they’re also part of an attempt to create a new narrative around the Festival of Brexit, and as journalists know, stories are what stick in people’s minds, not abstract figures. Stories can rewrite our memories and perceptions of the world, and theatre’s particularly good at creating images that stick; like Shakespeare’s character-assassination of Richard III. When I think of the NHS, I sometimes think of the beautiful moment in the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony where pyjama-clad kids bounced on their beds as nurses danced in orderly synchronicity around them – a warm-hearted, celebratory image that was made just as the Coalition’s austerity politics increased the number of children in poverty, and as mortality rates began to rise. Danny Boyle was able to use the Olympics to create a statement of support for the NHS, but not to create a criticism of the government that put it under threat.

As Festival of Brexit approaches, we have a choice. One option is to buy into a narrative where bruised Britons will heal our collective differences with the soothing bandage of ART. Maybe this will be Cool Britannia 2.0, a glorious outpouring of civic pride after years of shame and awkwardness and pitying looks from EU citizens. It could tell a story of a diversity that’s visible enough to be self-affirming, without being deep enough to be uncomfortable to Brexit’s fans; like Great British Bake Off’s wonderfully representative but apolitical-as-iced-buns cast.

Or we could do something else, which is reaching outwards – instead of just reshaping our own story into something less collectively embarrassing.

One colossally good way to mark Brexit would be to program more non-British artists. Or even just making space for more international productions to call in at big theatres, outside of the always-inspiring but short windows of festivals like LIFT. Ivo Van Hove can’t be the only European theatre director, it’s logically impossible: could we start inviting some other ones to horrify David Hare in exciting new ways? And it’s not just EU ones we should be looking at, because as Diana Damian Martin points out in Migrants in Culture’s dialogue piece, the Brexit vote isn’t an isolated phenomenon; it’s linked to a wider climate of hostility towards migrants, and its rhetoric often relied on scaremongering around Eastern European countries or Turkey joining the EU.

Art can be about “healing and coming together” and that’s all nice and good and woolly-socks-cosy; but it can also be about confrontation and discomfort and dismantling easy narratives. Arguably, the British theatre scene’s artistic Anglo-centrism is linked to the same broader parochialism which let Brexit happen. National identity can be easily reduced to Shakespeare and Union Jacks and Winston Churchill smoking a fat cigar. But when I think about the concept of ‘national identity’ I think about the idea of ‘negative space’ – you can only understand what Britishness really is by shading in the experiences of the nations that surround us. In Britain, Britishness is invisible, but step off this patch of land and it becomes glaring. Especially if you move away from the traditional-Brits-abroad model of travel-as-consumption, and use travel as a reason to have non-transactional interactions with people living in another country, to understand how things could be done differently, and to haunt the threatened indie arts spaces or institutions you wish your country had.

Climate change has made everyone extra aware of the environmental cost of flying, making both individual travel and international touring and festivals instantly suspect. But at the same time, making art is always an impossible moral equation; should we accept money from dodgy organisations? HOW dodgy is okay – like, ‘no’ to murderous regimes but ‘yes’ to pharmaceutical companies implicated in global health crises? Is abstract cultural value worth prioritising over more concrete needs of health spending or infrastructure? I just hope this particular equation isn’t solved in a way that leads to an even-more-insular British arts culture.

And if the decision-makers don’t start looking outwards, we can. This is a half-thought-out proposal that I keep thinking about, but. How about having old-timey pen pal project; only one that crosses borders, between people with similar roles in the arts/theatre?  In countries across the world, artists are battling governments that are swinging towards nationalism and authoritarianism. In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s government is legislating to tighten restrictions on what theatre can say and do. In Turkey, Barış Atay’s solo show Only a Dictator has been banned for allegedly criticising the country’s President, and there are heavy restrictions on LGBTQ+ artists. And even in less outwardly repressive governments, there’s also a constant struggle to make the case for funding the thornier, more controversial sides of the arts; in Australia, a huge swathe of independent artists and companies have been defunded en masse.

A more international conversation around the arts might inspire us to take more risks, to shout louder about injustices, and offer support where we can. And it also offers a level of reassurance that’s deeper than just telling ourselves bedtime stories, because it throws up new ideas and new ways of looking at the same old problems.The Festival-of-Actually-Talking-To-And-Platforming-People-From-Other-Countries isn’t as catchy as Festival of Brexit, I’ll grant you. But it’s infinitely cheaper, healthier, and a lot more bracing than a soothing bubble bath of vaguely patriotic nostalgia.

For more on Brexit’s impact on the arts, read Migrants in Culture‘s dialogue piece

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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