This year's guest director of the Brighton Festival, Aung San Suu Kyi, finds inspiration in Beethoven
By PAUL LEVYThe Brighton Festival, which this year runs from tomorrow to May 29, has a tradition of having a guest director. In 2009 it was the visual artist Anish Kapoor, and in 2010, the musician Brian Eno. But this year the Festival (www.brightonfestival.org) has staged its own coup by getting the agreement of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to be its guest artistic director.
In mid-April, Andrew Comben, the chief executive officer of Brighton Dome and Festival (the venue for many festival events) traveled to Yangon with the festival's chair, British journalist Polly Toynbee, and they managed to meet Ms. Suu Kyi. Owing to some last-minute changes in the scheduling of events, Ms. Suu Kyi was able to contribute a bit to the actual program of the festival. In particular, she requested the concert performance of Beethoven's only opera, "Fidelio," which takes place May 8, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Brighton Festival Chorus conducted by Adam Fischer.
In homage to Ms. Suu Kyi, Ms. Toynbee chairs "What Next?: The Future of Burma" with Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK; Peter Popham, whose new biography of Ms. Suu Kyi is called "The Lady and the Peacock"; Sue Lloyd-Roberts, who has reported undercover from Myanmar and across the region for the BBC; Zoya Phan, a Burmese author and spokesperson for the Burma Campaign (whose remarkable personal story is told in a separate event on May 20) and Robert Gordon, the British ambassador to Burma, 1995-99, on May 17 at Corn Exchange in Brighton.
On May 21, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange speaks on "Article 19." Not surprisingly, this event, dealing with freedom of information and the right to know, is returns only. But there are still tickets that day for "Playing with Fire," playwright Mark Ravenhill's New Writing South Lecture; and at 5.30 p.m. for "Upsetting the Balance," a debate by on the boundaries and censorship of comedy, featuring a panel of figures from comedy, journalism and politics. They will discuss what, for example, "makes people tell tasteless gags about terrible disasters?"
There is a full program of musical and theater events, as well as visual arts, film, books, circus and dance, plus lots of activities for children. Contemporary and even pop music isn't overlooked—Ms. Suu Kyi told Mr. Comben that one of her sons, Alexander Aris, had "taught me to like" Bob Marley (and the Grateful Dead's "Standing on the Moon"). The avant-garde Belgian company led by Alan Platel, Les Ballets C de la B, performs the British première of "Gardenia" May 11; while there is another U.K. dance première May 18, "Apocrifu," by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
The Danish documentary portrait, "Aung San Suu Kyi: Lady of No Fear," tells a lot of Ms. Suu Kyi's personal history, and dwells on her time at Oxford, her marriage to Dr. Michael Aris and their domestic life in England, prior to her return to Rangoon in 1988, when she became committed to the pro-democracy movement and was placed under house arrest a year later. It will be screened May 16. Richard Shannon's celebrated 2009 play about Ms. Suu Kyi, "The Lady of Burma," has been updated and will be performed by Liana Gould, directed by Owen Lewis May 19 and 20.
Ms. Suu Kyi had a big hand in another bit of programming, again involving Beethoven (the Heath Quartet playing the Quartet in A minor, Op. 132) plus her favorite poet of her youth, T. S. Eliot—Stephen Dillane reading his "Four Quartets," directed by Katie Mitchell in a setting designed by Vicki Mortimer (May 14, returns only).
Ms. Suu Kyi told Mr. Comben, "While I was at Oxford I started reading T.S. Eliot's works, and I suppose I was struck by how different he was from the classical poets who were familiar to me from the time I was very small." And, she concluded, "it all comes back to the same thing, doesn't it? Freedom. Freedom of thought, freedom to face new things—one of the things freedom brings to us is the courage to try out new things, to face what you've never faced before, because you feel free—and freedom and courage go together."
Write to Paul Levy at email@example.com