Hastings Litfest 2018

‘It’s just paper and ink – but it can reach into your heart and grab it’. Hastings first Litfest crammed thirty two events into little more than two days – so many that even an enthusiast like myself could cover nowhere near all that was on offer. Here we will concentrate on those at the Opus Theatre which proved a remarkably responsive venue for single presentations and larger theatrical events.

The opening quotation came from Kathryn Evans at the discussion by authors Writing for Children and Young Adults on Saturday morning. It took up the ideas raised by Sir David Hare, the Festival Patron, the day before. He was remarkably honest about his time in St Leonards and Bexhill, places he could not wait to leave, but the sense of isolation it brought also encouraged him to read intensively and subsequently to be a writer. He accepted that he had avoided the South Coast for most of his life but had recently, with an invitation to write about the South Downs and subsequently Glyndebourne, come to appreciate what Sussex has to offer, and is genuinely enthusiastic about this, the first of what is hoped to be many Hastings Litfests. It felt, he said, like a homecoming.

The complexity of emotions which writing raises for any individual was perfectly reflected in the choice of David Hare’s verse which was read by Julian Sands. Where his plays always have an intermediary – as with most art forms be they opera, concerts, or exhibitions – verse is intensely private and his poetry has only, so far, been published for private distribution. Many of his poems are dedicated to and reflect on his long term relationship with his wife Nicole Farhi. They are so personal that at times we seemed to be intruding.

This theme was taken up again by the panel of five authors writing books for children and young adults. Led by Sunday Times journalist Nicolette Jones they discussed their own reading as children and the influences upon them. The scope of writing for children is vast and it became clear as the session progressed that all of them valued the breadth of vision they can bring to children’s books which are often more limited within the rigid categories for adult fiction. Deeper philosophical points were raised when questions of identity came to light ‘who am I? How do I know who I am?’ and all concerned agreed that writing for young adults often gives them a freer hand than might be the case with adult fiction.

In the afternoon Sophie Hannah provided a highly entertaining introduction to her work writing continuation stories for Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. There seemed to be a rather uncomfortable interface between the creative challenge of a new story fitting the Poirot / Christie model and the families desire to sell ever more Agatha Christie novels to a new generation who prefer to be on their phones rather than reading books. On the more positive side we can look forward to a first Murder Mystery Musical at next year’s Litfest.

The evening’s entertainment took us very clearly away from our phones. The Pantaloons have a strong reputation for working closely with their audiences even if it is (often necessarily) at the expense of the original text. Their version of The Importance of Being Earnest, with just four actors, is hilarious and gloriously entertaining. It draws on the assumption that most of the audience know the play very well long before they arrive, and that we can all join in with a hand-bag!!! Moreover they add in musical numbers which are entirely apt to the approach as a whole, and remarkably well sung and played. In the long run the approach stays faithful to the original and simply brings an old war-horse comfortably into the twenty-first century. Jennifer Healy gives us a sexily overt Fenella Fielding as Gwendolen and a Miss Prysm such as none of us have ever previously encountered – or would want to. Alex Hargreaves as Jack/Earnest is almost the most normal of the cast but has fine moments of eccentricity. Fiona McGarvey brings us a Lady Bracknell which would make Dame Judi blush, while Neil Jennings holds the whole thing together with an Algernon who appears to be normal – if totally untrustworthy. The performance was obviously couched for out-doors but worked well within the spaces of the Opus Theatre. Let us hope The Pantaloons are encouraged to return soon.

The festival spread it wings to the White Rock, the Electric Palace Theatre, the Horse and Groom, the Kino Teatr, with workshops at the Stade Hall, Archers Lodge and The Stables Theatre, with the concluding events in the Royal Victoria Hotel.

Generous thanks to the many volunteers, without whom none of the events would have happened and to the organisers of what we firmly hope will become a fixture in the cultural life of Hastings.