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Songs for Europe – Kolbrun Bjort Sigfusdottir on (Can We Call This) Home, Jackie Wylie on Dear Europe and Neu! Reekie! On Everything Up

Kolbrun Bjort Sigfusdottir is going through security check at Edinburgh Airport when she’s supposed to be talking about her very personal show, (Can This Be) Home, which she performs in Edinburgh tonight alongside musician Tom Oakes on what was supposed to be the night before the UK left Europe. It turns out the Icelandic theatre director, whose tireless Brite Theatre company is at the forefront of the capital’s grassroots theatre scene, is flying to London to take part in last weekend’s People’s March against Brexit.

Whether Sigfusdottir’s experience on the march will be fed into her tellingly named show remains to be seen, but her presence there after living and working in the UK for five years is significant in terms of how much her future personal and professional future might be affected by Brexit.

“The thinking behind the show,” she says from airside, “is grounded in the original question of whether or not you’re going home for Christmas, and this idea of going back to your country of origin, even though it doesn’t feel like home anymore. Brexit was looming, and we wanted to make a show about what it means to be an immigrant, why people move from one country to another, and what it feels like for people who move their home elsewhere.”

Judging by the welter of artistic activity this weekend should make clear, Sigfusdottir isn’t the only on thinking about such matters. At the same time as Sigfusdottir and Oakes return to Edinburgh to perform (Can This Be) Home tonight, the city’s premiere counter-cultural spoken-word multi-media cabaret night Neu! Reekie! will be hosting a night in Leytonstone Ballroom, East London billed as Everything Up.

With the emphasis on internationalism, the night at Leytonstone Ballroom will feature regular ringmasters Michael Pedersen and Kevin Williamson introducing poet Daljit Nagra, French singer songwriter Sarasara, fellow countrywoman, DJ Eliot, aka Charlotte Giraudot, writer Harry Josephine Giles and novelist Kirsty Allison. This will be interspersed with a European animation showcase.

Programmed as part of Waltham Forest’s tenure as London Borough of Culture 2019, Everything Up will also feature cultural icon Bill Drummond, who has already issued a statement, The Border and Me, as a trailer of sorts to a night in which among other things he will bake forty hot cross buns and give out copies of what he calls ‘A Very Good Friday Agreement’, which he will attempt to add as a clause to the existing agreement to enable borders to remain open.

“Every story Bill tells you has different languages involved,” says Pedersen. “Where he lives in London, he’s a big fan of the Turkish barbers, and Bill’s work has always been about crossing borders, both internationally and locally.”

Of Everything Up’s wider remit, Williamson says it’s “about being pro-European, and it’s all part of a project called Remain in Light. A lot of that is about building links with Europe through art. If the economy is blown, and politics is blown, it’s going to be up to the artists to make connections. What we’re doing in London is taking that idea in reaction to the whole xenophobic Brexit project, throwing all these things into a big melting pot and having a big anti-Brexit party.”

Pedersen agrees.

“It’s a big thing to make the line-up European,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be explicitly political. Just having artists speaking in different languages is enough. It’s demonstrating the quality of work that’s under threat because of a political system. It’s also developing the dialogue between Scotland and London. London is a remain city, and Scotland is a remain country, so we’re very much preaching to the converted, but we’re doing it in an open way.”

In Glasgow, meanwhile, Dear Europe is a similarly expansive extravaganza featuring six bespoke performance pieces brought together beneath one banner by the National Theatre of Scotland. curated by the company’s artistic director Jackie Wylie and director/designer Stewart Laing. With the night hosted by playwright and performer Gary McNair, work featured includes a new film by Nima Sene and Daniel Hughes looking at the experience of people of colour in Poland and Polish people in Scotland, and a performance by former NVA director as he attempts to be adopted by Europe.

Nic Green and Ruairi O Donnabhain look at Ireland’s relationship with the UK, while Alan McKendrick presents a cross-national sci-fi jailbreak musical. Leonie Rae Gasson works with Heir of the Cursed, aka Beldina Odenyo Onassis, and a community choir of European migrants, and actor Tam Dean Burn looks at the contentious state of Scotland’s fishing policies.

What we want to do with Dear Europe is bring people together and create a community sharing at a particular moment,” Wylie explains. “I think the NTS always has a responsibility to ignite creative discussion about whatever’s going on in the world while remaining politically neutral. Dear Europe isn’t just about Brexit. It’s about Scotland and its relationship with Europe.

“There’s a lot of stuff as well about citizenship, power and borders, and there are a lot of different responses to all of that which are more complex than simply being polar opposites. The NTS is for everyone, and we want to reflect that.”

For Sigfusdottir, given Brexit’s ongoing longeurs, (Can This Be) Home could arguably run and run.

“It could go on as long as there’s still Brexit,” Sigfusdottir says. “I didn’t think that would happen. I thought the 29th would be a sort-of finale to it all. But even if it doesn’t happen, the UK will still be scarred by all this. The wind has definitely changed. In Iceland people are baffled about how it’s been allowed to go on for so long, and its’ become a bit of a joke. It’s definitely changed how people look at things here.”

With plans for work in Scotland in place up until 2020, Sigfusdottir now finds herself in a frustrating limbo.  

“For me it seems really scary to not know what’s going to happen, or if I’ll be able to develop my career. It’s massive, and feels very unsettling, the amount of uncertainty that’s been allowed to happen over the last three years.”

What, if push comes to shove, would be the worst case scenario?

“I really can’t answer that right now,” she admits. “I could still work in Europe, but my partner is English, and we really don’t know what we would do.”

This is why bringing people together for events this weekend remains important. As Wylie points out, “It feels like a very different time we’re moving into, and through the artists we’ve chosen and the work they make we want to provoke a response to all these difficult questions, but we also want to create a sense of solidarity.”

As Pedersen observes, “We’re still in this bubble of befuddlement, marching, lobbying and reading poetry together. We’re staring into the abyss, and that big old cauldron is ready to blow, but these collective actions matter.”

For Williamson, “There’s a whole argument of who cares what people think, but that’s the whole thing about Brexit. It’s insular and myopic. I’m not necessarily a fan of the EU, but when it comes to freedom of movement for artists, that matters. There used to be a thing where you could predict which way things would go, but now no-one’s got a clue. There are lots of angry people there.”

(Can We Call This) Home, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, tonight. Neu! Reekie!’s Everything Up, Leytonstone Ballroom, London, tonight. Dear Europe, SWG3, Glasgow, tomorrow.


The Herald, March 28th 2019

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