March 16, 2015

Adelaide Festival 2015

Filed under: 2015,Archive,Festival

Daily Review
March 16
Adelaide Festival 2015

Adelaide Festival(s)

Murray Bramwell

It is only 16 days into the month and already Adelaide’s “Mad March” is over. Admittedly, the Fringe began on February 13, but the intensity and simultaneity of the various major events – Fringe, Clipsal 500, Adelaide Cup and, of course, the original March event, the Adelaide Festival – in just a fortnight, is both exhilarating and, perhaps, problematic.

Just as it has in Edinburgh, home to the first (and most prestigious) of the post-war arts gatherings – and model for the Adelaide event, the Festival itself has been monstered by its own Fringe. The growth of the Adelaide Fringe has been extraordinary.

More than 1,050 events were registered for this year’s Fringe and the final weekend media releases declare ticket sales estimated at 536,000, a 20% increase on last year’s record attendance. Guesstimates of attendances exceeding 2 million may be contested, but no-one in the vicinity of the Royal Croquet Club at Victoria Square or the East End of Rundle Street near the Garden of Unearthly Delights and Gluttony can doubt that the crowds were huge and the buzz was upbeat, inclusive and very good-natured.

For David Sefton, artistic director of the Adelaide Festival for a third year in 2015, with one more to go next year, the challenges – of re-positioning an event which began in a very different world in 1960 – are considerable. A succession of directors has faced this prospect and each has strengthened the festival’s standing. Rob Brookman, Christopher Hunt, Barrie Kosky, Robyn Archer, Stephen Page, Brett Sheehy, Paul Grabowsky, even the eccentric Peter Sellars – all added to, and shaped, the expectations of audiences over the past twenty years. But, in that period, many of Adelaide’s old rivals in other Australian cities got more serious about their festivals, and newcomers emerged to make the calendar even more crowded.

It is under Sefton’s command that the Adelaide Festival has become an annual fixture and, while this was regarded as inevitable, it has meant that the program can no longer resemble the juggernaut that the biennial version became – especially under Archer and Sheehy. Doing more with less in half the time is a big ask – but one that Sefton has taken up with vigour and flair.

Sefton arrived with a track record of programming for US campus audiences and an enthusiasm for new music in particular. He also had some very interesting contacts on his speed-dial. In the first year he brought the Kronos Quartet, Laurie Anderson (first seen at the Adelaide Festival in 1986) and the somewhat raggle-taggle Brassland musicians from Brooklyn. Last year, he featured a terrific four night program showcasing the diverse genius of American composer, John Zorn and a mob of his long-time collaborators.

The 2015 music program also has had some memorable highlights. Resident composer Gavin Bryars presented his chamber opera Marilyn Forever, along with three nights of compositions ranging from settings of Petrarch, Shakespeare, Italian laudas, and, with excellent assistance from the Adelaide Symphony, his early classic Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Bryars, with his likeable Yorkshire directness and the memorably contemplative performances from his ensemble, was a highpoint.

Another project, the result of Sefton’s web of music connections, was the world premiere of Eric Mingus’s jazz version of Pete Townshend’s rock opera, Tommy. Mingus, son of jazz bass legend Charles Mingus, had been looking to stage this event for some time and Sefton’s festival provided the opportunity. Featuring a mix of US and Australian musicians, the show arranged and directed by Mingus with MD, Giancarlo Vulcano included Yael Stone as Tommy, Camille O’Sullivan and Robert Forster as his parents, and the lugubrious Gavin Friday as the Acid Queen.

Produced by Hal Willner, prolific creator of shows such as the Leonard Cohen tribute, Came So Far For Beauty and Rogues Gallery, a concert of sea shanties and pirate ballads, Tommy came together after less than ten days rehearsal. The result was a lively pinball jackpot. Mingus was thrilled to see his idea made real, and David Sefton tells me there is now a bidding war for the show in New York.

Also in the music offerings this year were guitar maestro Richard Thompson, the sublime Abdullah Ibrahim performing solo improvised piano, and Blow the Bloody Doors Off, a tribute to 1960s UK film scores including Alfie, Get Carter and The Italian Job.

There was also plenty for a younger demographic and those with a more esoteric taste for post-Rock electronica. Mogwai, 65daysofstatic and the reformed post-punk outfit The Pop Group also played during the festival. And Unsound Adelaide returned for the third time, offering a program of three nights of noise, drone, trance, jungle and murky dub.

On the Friday night at the Freemasons’ Hall, we heard the hazy sounds of Forest Swords, the primordial bass of The Bug and, the highlight, Double Vision, a blitzkrieg of 3D lasers and digital animations from Robin Fox, accompanied by exhilarating electronic programming from Atom TM. When the credits came up, acknowledging the Adelaide Festival commission, the crowd cheered – a positive indication that the festival is responding well to a new, and appreciative, constituency.

Theatre in 2015 has been more low-key. Perhaps that is inevitable after last year’s magnificent composite of Shakespearean drama, Ivo Van Hove’s Roman Histories from Dutch company Toneelgroep Amsterdam, propelled the festival from the very first weekend.

State Theatre’s Beckett Triptych, a set of three short plays from Samuel Beckett, including the rarely performed Eh Joe, proved to be an early highlight with outstanding performances from Paul Blackwell, Pamela Rabe, and Peter Carroll, ably directed by Corey McMahon, Geordie Brookman and Nescha Jelk. They were the only Adelaide company represented this year, so it is to be hoped that 2016 will see fuller representation and (do I hear?) the premiere of a high profile commission.

A number of works were monologues. SmallWaR, a collage of first hand reports and letters documenting conditions at the front and in field hospitals during World War I, was expertly performed by Belgian actor Valentijn Dhaenens. Including smartly integrated video and musical elements, SmallWaR was both powerful and theatrically inventive.

Olwen Fouere, with riverrun, delivered a virtuosic staging of a section of James Joyce’s cryptic novel, Finnegan’s Wake. It was a remarkable performance, not only in rendering a fiendishly difficult text, but in its vocal range, physicality and use of silence. At times, Fouere even made hauling motions like she was trawling a huge net of words from the Liffey. And a gnarly, barnacled cluster of multi-lingual puns, portmanteaus and neologisms they were. This, regrettably, is a problem for the production because, even to Joyce scholars, Finnegan’s Wake is an under-rewarding puzzle.

This is not mellifluous jabberwocky, it is like literary coral. Joyce himself said he was to be studied and not read, and the Wake was his 17 year descent into calculated obscurity . When performed we can only get a tiny amount of the gist and when Olwen Fouere deliberately dispensed with the musicality of the Anna Livia Plurabelle speech ( the one section that Joyce himself thought was accessible enough for him to record) she was making a tough call. Ultimately, riverrun flowed over and past us, but not very rewardingly through us.

Return Journey, Bob Freedom’s recital of Welsh writer, Dylan Thomas’s poetry and melodious prose was like aural fruit cake. Looking fully the part, Freedom, with curly hair and spotted bow tie, captured the cadence and the alliterative comedy of Thomas’s broadcasts about his childhood in Swansea. The actor was having voice problems late in the season, but by lowering the volume and the gusto a little, we were reminded all the more of the subtlety and complexity of Thomas’s remarkable gift.

As the title suggests, La Merda (The Shit) is a confronting work. Performed naked by Silvia Gallerano, it is a narrative turned diatribe which gnaws at multiple obsessions – including the death by suicide of her father and a pathological loathing of her body, especially her thighs. The text by Cristian Ceresoli, was performed in a range of voices, both literal and narrative, culminating in Artaudian screams of anguish, anger and despair. The impact, because of the dexterity of Gallerano’s performance and the cogency, wit, even humour, of this thought-provoking cultural critique, was both affecting and enduring.

Mention must be made of Black Diggers, a play about Aboriginal volunteers before, during and after the First World War, written by Tom Wright and directed Wesley Enoch for Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Festival. As one of very few Australian works in the Festival, it was a timely reminder of Indigenous valour against on-going discrimination, powerfully performed by an ensemble including Luke Carroll, Trevor Jamieson and George Bostock.

Other theatre works this festival included popular DJ, Kid Koala’s staging of his graphic novel, Nufonia Must Fall, charmingly performed with miniature puppetry in a live feed video with music and FX by the Kid; The Cardinals from Stan’s Cafe, a comically thoughtful puppet booth performance of Bible stories by four actors (including one representing a young Moslem woman), and Beauty and the Beast the enthusiastically erotic, strangely innocent re-telling of the French fable by burlesque queen Julie Atlas Muz and thalidomide-affected UK actor, Mat Fraser.

Over three years, Sefton’s dance program has receded – from 5 events in 2013, including Sylvie Guillem and Louise Lecavalier, to Batsheva Dance Company plus 2 others last year, to one this year. Two, if you include Azimut, the intriguing, beautifully lit, acrobatic physical theatre/circus from Compagnie 111, directed by Aurelian Bory and performed by Moroccan company Groupe Acrobatique de Tanger.

However, when that one company is the American Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, it is an occasion which will be long remembered. Performing Mixed Rep featuring choreography by Jiri Kylian, Crystal Pite and Hofesh Schecter, and Orbo Novo, created by Belgian maestro, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the Cedar Lake dancers were simply dazzling.
Based on My Stroke of Insight, the memoir by neuroanatomist , Jill Bolte Taylor about her experience having a stroke, Orbo Novo describes, with text and movement, the crisis, fascination, and the transcendental aspects of her discovery, temporarily, of life without the dominating left brain, and in the exhilarating freedom of the right. Performed by the full ensemble of 15, the dancers, in threes, recite sections of Taylor’s book , then Cherkaoui’s splendid choreography unfurls like a revelation of …Orbo Novo, a New World.

Against a large, flexible lattice wooden framework, the dancers perform in pairs, trios, and in extraordinarily fluid, full stage group choreography. They are not prosaically illustrating synapses or rogue brain cells, although there are sections indicating the physical impairment and loss of control Taylor felt. Instead, the work seeks to illuminate the unexpected wonder she experienced as a scientist inside the laboratory of her own body. Orbo Novo not only enters into a new world of experience, it reveals further and unexpected possibilities in the vocabulary of contemporary movement.

In his festivals David Sefton has always emphasised broad appeal events, often free of charge, for general audiences. The Neil Finn and Paul Kelly concert in Elder Park in 2013 and Kid Creole last year are good examples. This time, the focus has been on the visual arts with a retrospective of video artist, Bill Viola and the Blinc video projections and installations on North Terrace and in Elder Park along the Torrens.

We have seen the facades of the Parliament House precinct and the roof of the Festival Centre used as canvases for light shows before, but this year featured new-generation technology including lasers as well as, surely, the popular favourite, a life sized 3D pachyderm, Elephantastic ! The Blinc program, spread over 11 locations, seemed disappointingly scattered and fragmented. Perhaps the already gaudy lighting of the Adelaide Oval complex and along the footbridge diminished the effect and intensity of the installations.

The Bill Viola exhibits, certainly those at the Art Gallery, were more of historic interest, their innovations now somewhat overtaken, and their technical calibre also superseded by subsequent large screen video technology.

There was no doubting, however, the audience enthusiasm for the final night event at the Entertainment Centre, featuring the Adelaide Symphony performing Danny Elfman’s Music from the Films of Tim Burton. The large crowd gloried in Elfman’s themes from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Mars Attacks and Sleepy Hollow, through the Batman films to Edward Scissorhands and Alice in Wonderland.

Accompanied by projections of short extracts from the films and Tim Burton’s own sublime production design illustrations, the sight and sound combination had the legion of Burton and Elfman fans in ecstacy. The crowd highlight was Elfman reprising songs from the grinchy classic Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas. Under the baton of Hollywood conductor, John Mauceri, the orchestra and choir (with a rapturously popular solo from 9 year old Charlie Wells) performed well and enjoyed their task.

Now, as the Festival concludes, the media communiqués proclaim the largest attendances in 5 years, with estimates of more than 560,000. The 42 event program included 22 Australian premieres, 26 exclusive to Adelaide. Add in Writers Week and 3 days and 4 nights of Womadelaide and the Festival conglomeration is impressive.

David Sefton’s 2015 event provided many pleasures and enduring highlights. For me, Cedar Lake’s Orbo Novo, Gavin Bryars, Small WaR and Beauty and the Beast joined the list of longstanding Festival favourites. We now look forward to what the enterprising Sefton is hatching for next year’s final hurrah.

Daily Review, March 16, 2015.

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