Thursday, May 23, 2024
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The Brighton Festival: Include me out


BRIGHTON Festival, the largest annual arts festival in England, is upon us. Warily reading the programme, I harbour few illusions. The straight conservative English male – spectator and performer alike – has long been an outcast at this event. Page 1 notes joint funding for 2023 from the Arts Council and the Green/Labour local council, scarcely raising end-of-exile hopes.

This year’s guest director is London-based musician and writer Nabihah Iqbal, of Pakistani heritage. Formerly, the role was a sinecure for luvvies with Sussex connections. These days, with London-by-the-Sea appearances to keep up, the organisers fish in the larger ethnic talent pool of the metropolis. Ms Iqbal has herself said she wishes there were ‘more brown faces’ in the arts, so her appointment pleases everyone.  

Whatever the shortcomings of the acts commissioned, melanin-deficiency isn’t among them. The programme is one long hymn to the Great God of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI, aptly), who demands and here receives full obeisance. It’s not only the ‘right’ skin colours which are on devotional display. Woke’s other articles of faith are all ritually reaffirmed.

A play called Galatea features ‘two young trans people [African, naturally] who find love whilst escaping oppression’ and a ‘shipwrecked migrant who searches for his family’. The original drama from which it’s adapted – written by Shakespeare’s contemporary, John Lely – draws on characters from classical Greece, and doesn’t question the heterosexual status quo. But with pre-eminent members of the victimhood hierarchy to celebrate, who cares about literary integrity?   

‘Trans solidarity’ doesn’t stop there. Backed by the ‘Trans Voices’ singers, British-Bengali vocalist and composer BISHI performs music focused on ‘dual identities, anti-racism, and a call to find empathy in a divided world’. On the same bill is the premiere of a choral piece inspired by the life of Herculine Barbin, ‘whose birth date globally marks Intersex Day of Remembrance, highlighting the violence inherent in the binary sex and gender system’.

Perhaps you’d prefer an evening of dance? If so, consider A Queer Collision, which draws on the dance-work of Stuart Waters and his ‘experience as a neuro-divergent, queer man living with mental health access needs’. Or there’s ‘Our Roots’, a ‘wild and vivid’ night of non-stop dancing which is ‘an unforgettably colourful celebration of queer chaos’, an ‘unmissable opportunity to be part of our city’s queer history’.  

If you’re remotely traditional in your views on sex, the festival won’t just shun you but demonise you, all in the name of inclusiveness. A DUP Opera centres on a ‘scandalous’ radio interview given in 2008 by Northern Ireland politician Iris Robinson, when she referred to homosexuality as an ‘abomination’. The Belfast Ensemble has ‘taken this moment in queer Irish history and wrapped it within a web of incendiary historical comments by DUP members on the subject of gay rights’. I look forward to the same troupe exposing ‘incendiary historical comments’ made by Sinn Fein.

If poetry is your bag, ‘one of the greatest poets of modern times’, Linton Kwesi Johnson, reflects on how music in Caribbean and black British culture acts as a ‘creative, defiant response to oppression’. Another evening of verse features a panel discussion on ‘new and exciting possibilities for the future of decolonising education and academia’.  

I could go on, but this is a representative sample of the fare on offer. (I spare you the ‘climate crisis’ artists, and the drag-show monotony of the Fringe programme.) What we witness here is a vindication of the iron law of progressivism: everything the left claims to do, it does the opposite. In her programme notes, Ms Iqbal writes of the ‘special, almost magical feeling of togetherness, of sharing, of community’ she wants the festival to generate. It won’t; at least, not for the likes of you and me. 

Instead, she has contrived to create a template for cultural separation, a stark reminder of how divided and fragmented we’ve become. This is artistic failure on her own terms. More importantly, it’s kindling to the resentment festering in ‘persecuted’ minority groups; people who, if only they knew it, are among the most coddled in human history.

Ultimately responsible, of course, is the Western obsession with the exotic Other, born not of altruism but of boredom, ignorance and the guilty pleasures of self-hatred. One can’t blame the Other for exploiting it: on the street, on campus, on the stage.    

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Stuart Major
Stuart Major
Stuart Major is an independent scholar based in Sussex.

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