From this Saturday, to mark the start of the three-week Brighton Festival 2011, Brighton Town Hall will play host to The New World Order, Harold Pinter’s protest against political suppression and the cruel and silencing voice of torture. Audiences will move from one room to another, including the building’s disused Victorian police cells, experiencing at close quarters the terror and hopelessness of imprisonment; inhumanity as a constant.
It’s the energy produced by this combination of the abstract and the visceral – setting The New World Order in the dungeons of the Town Hall – which chief executive Andrew Comben believes makes the seaside city of Brighton’s annual festival so distinctive. “I think it’s one of the most important things, that we are absolutely located in this place. It sounds banal, but we self-consciously plan work that responds to the different and sometimes odd sites across the city. Over the past couple of years, and even further back, we’ve had work in the Old Co-op Building and in the fruit and veg market in Circus Street. We are always trying to animate those sometimes diffuse sites in new and different ways.”
Comben acknowledges that many festivals, notably the Edinburgh Fringe, could make similar claims. However, as he argues, there is something peculiar to Brighton, with its minaret skyline, patchwork streets, shabby grandeur and salt-spray vibrancy, that makes it perfect for the interplay of local geography and big themes. Since the Prince Regent, later King George IV, decided to recreate the Taj Mahal in the form of the Royal Pavilion, the city has cultivated an identity in which quirkiness and broad horizons are inseparable. “This is part of Brighton”, says Comben. “It really enjoys its isolation but has, historically, had an important sense of itself in international terms. Its remoteness, its apartness from London and the rest of the country – right on the edge – means that it absolutely feels that it’s part of international discourse.”