BN1 chats with… Calixto Bieito (Brighton Festival)

The end of our conversation is perhaps its most illuminating moment “I’m very easy going. I’m not the Tarantino of the opera,” Calixto Bieito says, as he encourages me to call his personal number with any further questions. ”This is ridiculous.” He then pauses. “It’s OK, I don’t care. Everybody loves to work with me, because I’m a very peaceful man.” Clearly Bieito is aware of his reputation in Britain, but it’s done very little to curtail a robust approach to his craft.

Those who like their classics to remain archaic have had some issues. The reinvention of Don Giovanni as a car park-inhabiting junkie perplexed many purists. Setting Puccini’s Turandot within a toy factory in communist-era China hasn’t helped. His hyper-sexualised staging of Hamlet at Edinburgh once sent many critics stampeding to register their indignation, while he was branded ‘tacky’ by one self-appointed moral compass for his interpretation of Carmen – coincidentally a production still revisited after 18 years. Are some people missing the point? Is the intention not to outrage, but find traditional repertoire a more relevant place in the world?

Personally, he’s erudite and charming. Raised in Barcelona and now living in Basel, he speaks five languages and might just be shy when talking about his most personal show yet. Coming to Brighton Festival, The String Quartet’s Guide to Sex and Anxiety will see another invigorating marriage of music and drama. Award-winning virtuosos The Heath Quartet, no strangers to the festival, will perform alongside an equally stunning quartet of actors. “I wanted to a show – with a string quartet and very charismatic actors – about anxiety as a disorder, as well as existential anxiety, and how it is affecting our lives,” he tells me.

It’s a project which has been in development of sorts for a while. He’d met The Heath Quartet while programming a festival in Spain and instantly fell in love with the way they played. He’s in doubt as to the physical nature of an orchestra’s string section. “It is very special. There’s something sensual with a string quartet which is going directly to your body. It’s beautiful, but at the same time could be extremely painful, melancholic or funny. There’s a lot of ‘colours’.” Beethoven’s String Quartet No.15 in A Minor and Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 2, both extraordinarily emotional pieces, are being used to emphasise the range of moods onstage.

Bieito says he’s suffered with social anxiety disorder since childhood, but insists everybody will suffer from existential anxiety at some point in their lives. Anguish at our place in the universe is just a part of the human experience. “We start talking about the illness and finish talking about the lives of everybody – when one is facing the future, or is afraid of their own death.” The String Quartet’s Guide to Sex and Anxiety has been heavily influenced by Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, a weighty 17th century treatise on human emotions. This uses an eclectic mix of sources, including philosophy, science and literature (including a great deal of Shakespeare), in an attempt to understand the nature, and causes of depression. Love, religion, poverty, substance abuse and social conditioning, all very modern influencers, are called to account in this self-reflexive and exhaustive work.

Actors Cathy Tyson (Band Of Gold), Mairead McKinley, Miltos Yerolemou (Game Of Thrones) and Nick Harris will explore the tempestuous, but enduring, relationship between internal narrative and artistry. ‘It would be very nice if we can make so the audience are getting confused, and don’t know who are the musicians and who are the actors. “I said to them: ’It will be nice to make a kind of communion between the music and the text together. It’s a special kind of experience, making something very sensitive and very subtle for the people, talking about ourselves today.” He assures me this is more than a ‘sad show.’ The familiar Bieito themes, like oppression, passion, the power of human emotions and poignant humour, will all take their place in this beautifully-crafted montage of melody and madness.

Amidst the questions this show asks of humanity, there’s always a possibility it won’t reveal an easy hidden answer for the world and its problems. But it should encourage the audience to confront their own qualms and emotions “Art is the only thing that makes us feel free today. I’m not just a pessimistic man, I’m quite optimistic a lot of the time. I’m happy with my work, I have a wonderful job, I have success and I have two wonderful kids. But, the times are getting a bit more difficult. Social divisions are getting bigger, economic problems are getting bigger. It’s strange times. I don’t think theatre can change society. First of all, I want to do a good show. If this show touches the audience, makes them think or feel better, that will be fantastic.”

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