March 11, 2020

Reviewing the Adelaide Festival : Recollections in Grateful Tranquility

March 11, 2020

File under Archive, Current, Festival, Commentary.

Adelaide Festival

Reviewing the Adelaide Festival : Recollections in Grateful Tranquility.
Murray Bramwell

My life in Adelaide has always included the Festival. Less than a month after I arrived, in February 1972, to begin postgraduate study at Flinders Uni, I was in the thick of Writers’ Week. Beat legends Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg were reading in the Town Hall. Ginsberg had invited Indulkana songmen from APY lands to share the stage for a marathon of poetry, chanting and dance. The charismatic Russian Vosnesensky also held court. Scott Hicks was everywhere recording it on reel-to-reel tape.

Over the next twelve years I sampled the festival but on a meagre budget. In 1976, in one of Anthony Steel’s elegantly curated programs, I saw and heard the music and silences of John Cage and the lithe choreography of Merce Cunningham. In the Space the revolutionary South African writer, Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island played back to back to audiences stunned by their courageous witness.

But there were many misses. My all-time Festival regrets are not seeing cricot2’s The Dead Class in ’78, and Pina Bausch in 1982, even if I did see pianist Keith Jarrett perform his alchemy and attended the Edward Hopper exhibition at the Art Gallery.

In 1980 came the first of many transformative theatre experiences. At the Anstey Hill Quarry, Peter Brook’s The Conference of Birds and The Ik (alas, not Pere Ubu) became touchstones for future expectations. Seeing the invention and intensity of his actors was to see Brook’s Empty Space come alive. This was when the Festival began to be my theatrical education, opening my imaginative horizons – something which has continued to this day.

My connection to the Adelaide Festival changed and intensified in 1986. In that year I began reviewing professionally for The National Times, The Advertiser, and within the next two years, The Adelaide Review and Theatre Australia, then, later again, The Australian. Now I had access to the full range that the festival offered . I interviewed Elizabeth Le Compte of The Wooster Group and I went out to Thebarton Theatre to see the intriguing Jan Fabre.

The amazing Rustaveli Company from Georgia, led by maestro Ramaz Chkhikvadze, re-energised Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and turned Richard III into a reptilian pantomime, heralded by lashes of electric guitar and thumping bass. Ramaz was terrifying and plausible, channelling, it seemed, both Stalin and Batman’s Joker.

Then there were Beckett performances by Billie Whitelaw and the engaging spiel of Spalding Gray. And, following Tenkei Gekijo’s butoh masterpiece, Mizu no Eki (The Water Station) in 1984, came the unearthly Kazuo Ohno. 1984 had been a vexed festival with director Elisha Moshinsky’s abrupt resignation, but again it was Anthony Steel who stepped in and steadied the ship and 1986, my first full festival, was one of Steel’s finest – including also the premiere of the Richard Meale’s opera of Patrick White’s Voss, the Nederlands Dans Theater, Philip Glass, and the newly-emerging Laurie Anderson.

The Australian Bicentennial celebrations boosted the resources of the Festival in 1988 and Lord Harewood’s program (assisted by Rob Brookman) was ambitious. The all-night performance of Peter Brook’s version of the Indian epic, The Mahabharata was the much-feted highlight. Brook’s return to the Anstey Hill Quarry, eight years after The Conference of Birds piqued our interest. The Mahabharata proved splendid, but unevenly so, and at 3.30 am, when the chocolate rations and brandy ran low and fatigue ran high, it seemed like the dawn-lit triumphant finale was a long way off.

The Harewood festival had some grand inclusions – the entire Chicago Symphony performed, the Moscow Circus came to town, Twyla Tharp danced, and we saw more Japanese butoh, this time the celebrated Sankai Juku. The State Theatre Company commission, 1841 by Michael Gow was deemed by many to be overcooked and underdone and disappointment turned too readily to critical hostility, from me included, I regret to say.

The theatrical highlight of 1988 (thanks Rob Brookman for the tip) was French Canadian company, Theatre Repere’s The Dragons Trilogy, an epic work set in Toronto from the 19th century to the present. Its then less well-known, director Robert Lepage was to become a fixture at the festival, returning with his Ex-Machina company in 1998 to Robyn Archer’s first festival with The Seven Streams of the River Ota, again for David Sefton in 2014 with Needles and Opium, and most recently for Neil Armfield and Rachel Healey in 2018 with The Far Side of the Moon.

Christopher Hunt, director for two festivals in 1980 and 1994, has had a sometimes uneasy relationship with Adelaide and his reticence to engage publicly meant that his programs were not spruiked as much as they deserved. Undoubtedly he produced the goods. Brook at the Anstey Hill Quarry in 1980 was bold and innovative, and in 1994 his dance program alone was outstanding.

Hunt himself was rarely seen about the festival but when Mark Morris and his dancers set up shop at the café tables next to the Festival Centre there was a rare chance for us to meet and greet performers with the kind informality that makes a festival truly festive. The excellent Frankfurt Ballet also performed and William Yang introduced his, now classic, one man slideshow, Sadness, both gay celebration and sombre elegy to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and early 90s.

The Open Roof mini-festival was a detailed suite of Asian and Pacific performances presented in a purpose built wooden stage in Elder Park. It was ambitious, diverse and often esoteric and despite informative program notes and Hunt’s commitment to take the festival into our geo-political region, it was not well supported. Relocated to the Plaza at Flinders Uni, the weather worn, wooden and thatched Open Roof remained a reminder of an idea that didn’t quite fly.

In hindsight it is clear that this venture had already been more successfully prefigured in the quietly accomplished Rob Brookman’s 1992 program with his inspired inclusion of musicians and dancers from Peter Gabriel’s UK WOMAD festival. The experience of Sheila Chandra, Youssou N’Dour , Remmy Ongala, Subramanium and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan performing both traditional and electro-fusion music is something those of us lucky to attend the first WOMADelaide still enthuse about.

The extraordinary success of WOMAD- prosaically short for World of Music and Dance – begun by Brookman, Ian Scobie and others, in conjunction with Thomas Brooman in the UK, is evident today as this, now fully separate, annual event remains a central and much-loved part of the Adelaide Festival program today.

Festivals invariably reveal the predilictions, but also the personalities of the artistic director. Anthony Steel was like an affable doge, his rigour and flair contributed more to the continuing reputation of the festival than any other single programmer. Later appointments brought other energies.

When Barrie Kosky was named for 1996 there were murmurings that it wasn’t yet his turn, but the result vindicated his surprise selection. Kosky’s program, which he enthusiastically narrated at his famous Hills Hoist launch was full of buzz. The Spanish iconoclasm of La Fura del Baus, the visually brilliant Hotel Pro Forma, the timely sexual politics of DV8’s Enter Achilles, and the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg (along with the three week party at Red Square) brought a renewed vibrancy to the Festival.

Kosky was visible on the ground in the long lead up to March and he was the program’s number one fan. The Maly Company and the Slovenian dancers, Betontanc continued the trend of scheduling theatre from the former Soviet Bloc throughout the 1990s – The Georgian Film Actors Studio, the Katona Joszef Theater, all linking with the Rustavelis before that.

For me, these threads in programming – Brook, Lepage, the Eastern Europeans, Japanese butoh and avant garde circus from Circus Oz to the chainsaw-juggling French punk clowns, Archaos – were a continuing revelation. As were the contributions from local companies such as ADT, Red Shed, Doppio, Brink and The Border Project; the Festival has been an important commissioning source for new works. It enlarged my range as a reviewer and enriched my teaching in drama at Flinders.

Robyn Archer, one of Adelaide’s own, delivered two excellent festivals, strengthened by her own aesthetic clarity and erudition, and made confident by her understanding of the festival’s founding principles. Her selections were shrewd and thematically intricate, bringing Peter Greenaway’s opera Writing to Vermeer and Mizumachi (The Water City) as well as rich and diverse music.

The micro-kerfuffle about the festival poster, featuring the Virgin Mary playing an accordion, reminded us that the festival has its unpredictable parochial moments, but it was settled again soon enough – each accordion to their needs.

The Peter Sellars Experience was a more complicated matter, and its poster controversy was minor compared with the larger structural issues. I still remember my excitement when it was first announced that the successor to Robyn Archer in 2002 would be Peter Sellars, originator with the brilliant composer John Adams, of the operatic masterwork Nixon in China (a highlight of Rob Brookman’s festival in 1992 when it was directed by Gale Edwards)

Sellars made several visits to Adelaide prior to the scheduled start to the 2002 event and, as he featured in the second year postmodern theatre topic I taught at Flinders Uni, I invited him to come and speak to my students – which he very generously did. He visited my classes several times and was exhilarating to see and hear. In his signature kaftans and prayer beads, his spiky hair like the touchpaper on a penny skyrocket, he embraced all he met and responded to questions with warmth and earnest, interested attention.

Sellars’ commitment to art and culture, to the value and impact of theatre in all forms, was undeniable and, to a variety of audiences it was inspirational. He wore his feelings and ideals close to the surface and people responded. I chaired a session he gave at the Festival of Ideas and, sitting on the Elder Hall stage with him, I could see how engaged and exuberant and intent the packed house was.

After he gave the annual Investigator Lecture for Flinders University in the Town Hall, the Vice-Chancellor appointed Sellars as an Adjunct Professor. He ran seminars at the university and in true professorial fashion accidentally left a folder of students’ essays at an airport in Sweden.

In the eighteen months leading up to his role as AD of the Festival in 2002, the very amiable Peter Sellars had proven to be an outstanding and unforgettable Festival Artist in Residence. But even as he was energising the Adelaide arts community the problems became apparent. As director he was delegating the task of running the Festival to others with no authority or financial clout to succeed.

He was a brilliant instigator and narrator for the Festival but just as he was making himself invaluable, he was also in the process of disappearing – right when the real operational logistics began. The 2002 experience was a folly but not a catastrophe: Sue Natrass expertly took over the management and we learned an enduring lesson about what is immutable about our festival and why it has endured so long.

The Festival in the 21st century has continued to thrive. And my abiding sense of it is still based around events and performances I have written about that comprise nearly forty years of epiphanies. Such as David Gulpilil’s extraordinary solo performance in Stephen Page’s program, Nora, the Berlin Schaubuhne’s innovative adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House which Brett Sheehy presented in 2006, and John Adams’s Kerouac tribute Dharma at Big Sur two years later. Paul Grabowsky’s selections – The Sound and the Fury, performed by Elevator Repair Service, and Jonathan Pryce’s unnerving performance in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker – also stand out.

Most recently, the four festivals from David Sefton, ushering in the even more demanding annual cycle for the event, have produced outstanding music and theatre. The residencies by John Zorn, (assisted by a Who’s Who of contemporary post-rock and jazz performers) and the recitals by Gavin Bryars and his collaborators were exceptional. As was the theatre – Ivo van Hove’s masterwork Roman Tragedies (along with Kings of War in Armfield and Healy’s 2018 line-up) and Rona Munro’s The James Plays, were works of scale and ambition that are still rare and special to see outside of Europe.

The current leadership from Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy has been successful. Both directors have strong connections with Adelaide and made significant early advances in their distinguished careers here. Decisions have been made with a sense of precedent with locations – The Secret River, vividly staged at Anstey Hill Quarry, is an obvious example. The presentation of two Barrie Kosky operas – The Magic Flute and the extraordinary Saul– is another. Also selections such as the Iranian Verbatim Theatre Group’s confronting Manus and the South African music theatre work, A Man of Good Hope signal a continuation in the Festival’s social and political concerns. The inclusion of human requiem, Rundfunkchor Berlin’s promenade version of Brahms’ Requiem, is another enduring highlight in my long list.

Reviewing is a strange activity. Often it can seem like stringing beads – commenting and musing on the passing parade, then moving on to the next item. A celebration of the Adelaide Festival, such as this publication, reminds me what a complex and magnifying effect it has had for me – attending this recurring but ever-evolving, event, in my own city, over so many years. It is a rare privilege this opportunity, it has been a master class in new creative ideas, and provided the most amazing window on the world.

Published in slightly edited form in :

Adelaide Festival 60 Years (1960-2020), Edited by Catherine McKinnon, Wakefield Press, 2020, pp. 226-230.

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