September 01, 2002

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2002 Melbourne Festival

Previewed by Murray Bramwell

Around the middle of next month – October 17 to be exact – the Melbourne Festival opens and runs for two busy weeks. For too long, we in Adelaide with our prestigious biennial event, have looked down our noses at Sydney and Melbourne. After all, those once-a-year fixtures didn’t have the depth and intricacy of the Adelaide programs and, compared with our forty year history, they could be dismissed as latter-day clones.

That has all changed. With the Olympics Arts program featuring Pina Bausch and last year’s Melbourne Festival showcasing Steppenwolf and The Wooster Group, Adelaide is no longer automatically the leading contender. Perth has also been plugging away – it has lost money lately and had to recut its cloth, but that city alone drew a Robert Wilson production recently and, now, Tasmania’s Ten Days on the Island has successfully brought fresh perspectives to the notion of the festival.

It also must be noted that Adelaide dropped the ball in 2002 with the Sellars debacle. With poor management and unwieldy structures the festival squandered money and failed to deliver. We have been damaged – not for experimenting with the festival form or shifting focus to the local – but for making such a hash of it. We have to earn respect again and we will need to be astute and inventive to make that happen.

Meanwhile, it won’t do us any harm to look beyond our borders for a change. And Melbourne is pretty good place to start. My impression is that, thanks to Virgin Blue and QANTAS price matching, there is a lot more commuting going on. There is plenty of footy traffic, especially with both Adelaide teams performing well. There are also more people making interstate visits to Melbourne for theatre and music. The MTC has had a record year with high profile and first rate productions – Geoffrey Rush in Yasmina Reza’s LifeXThree, David Wenham in Sam Shepard’s True West and the recent season of Proof featuring a splendid cast including Rachel Griffiths. And, after a most productive period here with Tim Maddock and the Red Shed Company, leading playwright Daniel Keene has energised the new theatre landscape with the Keene/Taylor Project.

It is no accident, perhaps, that much of the recent accomplishment in Melbourne has connection to Adelaide. Simon Phillips, now so successfully leading MTC, brought professionalism and stature to State Theatre during his tenure and both the Tasmanian and the current Melbourne Festival are the work of Robyn Archer.
In what seems no time at all, Archer has become the pre-eminent festival director in the country. Her energetic and inclusive programs for Adelaide in 1998 and 2000 are, for me, models of their kind and her creativity with the Tasmanian Festival established a success from day one.

Enthusiastically spruiking her 2002 program in Adelaide some weeks ago, Archer reminds us why it is such a bonus to have an artist as a programmer. She gurgles with admiration and curiosity for the line-up she has put together. Much of it is completely new work and anything might happen before showtime. But for Archer, who has a good eye for a commission, that only adds to the frisson. And, unlike the elusive Peter Sellars, she not only backs her program to the hilt, she is only too happy to go into the microdetail to explain why.

Over the next three years Archer is taking the Melbourne Festival into three main areas. This year is Text, 2003 is Body and then Voice in the final year of her residency. And, as one would expect, Archeresque whimsies abound. This is the kitchen sink festival, art at the hearth. The focus is on the intimate, the family, the domestic milieu. But as the director reminds us, this is a double-edged notion because not every parlour is a cheery one and there is, in every dream home, a heartbreak.

In Fire Fire Burning Bright, the Neminuwarlin Performance Group from the Kimberley Region of Western Australia, recall as living history the massacre of the Gija and Worla people around the time of World War One. Written and directed by Andrish Saint-Clare in collaboration with the cast, descendents of the victims. This production explores subject matter and theatre style pioneered by Black Swan with Trevor Jamieson’s Career Highlights of Mamu.

Italian company Societas Raffaello Sanzio returns to Australia with Genesi, which like the Guilio Cesare in Adelaide’s 2000, is directed by controversial theatre stylist Romeo Castelluci. Performed by the citizens of the village of Cesena, Genesi explores the implications of our beginnings in the nuclear age. And in what promises to be a highlight, Hebbel-Theater Berlin and director Michael Laub take Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, a story of unrequited love and alchemise it into Total Masala Slammer, complete with Bollywood song and dance.

Close to the domestic theme is OzOpera’s new work Love in the Age of Therapy with a libretto by Joanna Murray-Smith, music by Paul Grabowsky, and from Candid Stammer Theatre in Canada, Recent Experiences has six actors around a table telling stories from four generations of a family. An Argentinian production translated as 1500 Metres Above the Level of Jack is set in a bathtub where an old woman laments the disappearance of her husband and her whole family almost drowns in recollection. The director, Federico Leon, will also curate a season of Argentinian film. Other offerings of domestic miniatures will be the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes, with Tinka’s New Dress and actor Ivan Heng cross-dressing in the recent classic from Singapore, Emily from Emerald Hill by Stella Kon. For those wanting to make a real night of it, IRRA offers twelve hours in the company of Roberta Bosetti in The Interior Sites Project – but be quick because the audience is limited to seven per performance.

There are other prospects in store here – a trilogy of works by Wallace Shawn including The Designated Mourner from Melbourne group inthecompanyof pleasure, QTC and Playbox’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony directed by Michael Gow , Big hArt’s kNOT@HOME, a multimedia study in dislocation, Simon Callow in The Mystery of Charles Dickens and an audience with Broadway legend, Bea Arthur.

The music program has a strong Asian Australian emphasis with chamber concerts from the T’Ang Quartet, the Six Hermits project and exponent of the toy piano, Margaret Leng Tan. Also, jazz from the Louis Sclavis Quartet and Greek repertoire from Savina Yannatou. There are recitals from siblings including Michael Kieran Harvey and his sister Bernadette Harvey-Balkus and Slava Grigoryan and his brother Leonard.

And a Robyn Archer festival has to have some of her daffy trademarks as well – we have violinist Jon Rose bowing fences, performance company 5 Angry Men for first night, the Bute Utes motor show and a whole program at the Famous Spiegeltent. This Melbourne season is all happening just down the road and, especially for those in Adelaide who stayed away at home this year, this may be just the festival we had to have.

The Adelaide Review, No.228, September, 2002. p.?

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