October 26, 2007

A Festival of Light and Enlightenment

Filed under: Archive,Festival

Artistic Director Brett Sheehy talks about his 2008 Adelaide Bank Festival of Arts with Murray Bramwell

The Adelaide Festival took something of a thumping in the early part of the 21st century. The Peter Sellars Experiment in 2002, while not a catastrophe in itself, nevertheless unsteadied the balance for a cultural event with a proud forty year history. Perhaps it was the timing – with other capital city festivals on the ascendant. Perth was looking good and Melbourne, especially, was very much on the rise with three excellent festivals guided by Robyn Archer, energized by her 1998 and 2000 Adelaide stints. 2002 – with its dysfunctional organization and Sellars’ own reluctance to provide the narrative needed to navigate such a radical departure – resulted in a disconnection with the faithful and a loss of confidence in the brand. These things can happen quickly in the fickle and volatile world of cultural events but thankfully, the modest and good-natured festival from Stephen Page in 2004 steadied the ship.

However, even when Brett Sheehy, ten year veteran as Deputy Director and then Chief Executive of the Sydney Festival, was announced for the 2006 fixture, Adelaide’s reputation, particularly in the Eastern states, was far from rehabilitated.

“I was appointed in September, 2003, Sheehy recalls, “and some in the press said to me: ‘You must have rocks in your head to direct the Adelaide Festival.’ And it hit me for a six – to me, this was one of the dream festival jobs in the world and yet here was this perception that it was wounded and that no-one would want to do it. So I went into 2006 thinking – ‘this is a very fragile thing that this city owns and feels is very damaged. I’ve got a job here to build the image.’”

And with its central motifs of flight, and a launch at the bright new International Airport, the 2006 Adelaide Bank Festival took off – with renewed sponsorship and some serious money from the government. It even became a centrepiece of Mike Rann’s sliced-bread-and-many-circuses March re-election campaign. With a strong program and a surplus from Page’s event, Sheehy’s first festival went on to break attendance records and raise returns in 2006. All in all, it was a happy time, with a balanced program and with Nora (the Berlin Schaubuhne’s version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House) and William Forsythe’s Three Atmospheric Studies adding to the legend of the Adelaide Festival, as previous events from Brook, Bausch, the Rustavelis, Lepage and Mark Morris had done.

Now, it is with increased confidence and certainty that Brett Sheehy enters this further phase for the Adelaide Festival – and his final round – in March next year. A shy, mercurial fellow he has not courted public attention, nor has he become a household word. I saw him walking through Rundle Mall recently – in jeans, casual shirt and sunnies – and not a single head turned in recognition. But, providing media briefings at the Hilton Hotel prior to the bells-and-whistles launch in the Festival Theatre, he is, as ever, all energy and enthusiasm, outlining his program at rattling speed and beaming with justifiable pride at the elegance and substance of his program.

The themes are light and enlightenment – notions not so much contrived but observed once the program had been finalized. Sheehy is careful not to make grandiose claims for patterns and threads in his programming but he is careful to make sure all the main food groups are covered. He has been taking careful note of the make-up of the Adelaide Festival in the last while – as he explains:

“Something I have been wrestling with since the last festival – and something the East Coast media has been talking about – is identifying each of the capital city festivals and making them distinct from one another. When I came to Adelaide, the way I felt it was different was that it is the most holistic of all the arts festivals and every art form is dealt with. In Sydney I presented one small chamber opera and a few classical programs in my time there.

“Coming back here last year I wanted to reinforce that, to make Adelaide separate from the rest, because it is the case that it is producing work across every art form – opera, classical music, and the visual arts especially – and these are areas most other capital city festivals are abandoning. The other thing that is glaringly obvious is that no matter how large the arts festival programs get in Sydney and Melbourne that complete festival experience is unrepeatable. Only two cities in the world are doing that – Edinburgh and Adelaide.”

For 2008 Sheehy is refocusing the outdoor sites for the festival by literally putting a spotlight on North Terrace. Calling the event Northern Lights, he has planned a series of massive projections on the facades of the major buildings of the cultural boulevard– including an Acropolis superimposed on the Art Gallery. Each night from dusk until 2 am the architecture will be illuminated and transformed and for the festival’s opening night event, Ignition, North Terrace will be cordoned off from Kintore Avenue to Pulteney Street for a light and pyrotechnics show synchronised to a live soundtrack devised and performed by featured US musician Daniel Bernard Roumain, aka DBR, and his band, The Mission.

The shift to North Terrace Sheehy also sees as a topographical link to the Fringe in the East End and the enlarged Persian Garden festival club which has moved to include the Festival Centre Amphitheatre in Elder Park. The rapprochement with the Fringe is deliberate offsetting any sense of competition. “We are such completely separate beasts “, notes Sheehy, and we perfectly complement each other.”

The music program is strong. In a group of events entitled Musical Mavericks, the director has gathered an impressive array or works by living masters. The opera, opening on leap year’s February 29, and winner of this year’s Grammys for Best Classical and Best Opera Recording, is Ainadamar (Fountain of Tears) by Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov, libretto by David Henry Hwang. Based on the death of Lorca in the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Fountain of Tears, Sheehy describes as “shot through with fantastic Spanish melody lines” and, directed by Graeme Murphy, will feature the ASO with guitarists Slava and Leonard Grigoryan.

Book-ending the festival in the final weekend is Book of Longing, a new work by composer Phillip Glass featuring settings of poems by Leonard Cohen. Brett Sheehy has had a long association with Phillip Glass through the Sydney Festival and in the lead up to this festival has watched this project emerge since Cohen’s collection was published eighteen months ago.

Fastening on to the themes of the poems Sheehy observes :

“Not only is light a key theme in the festival but also enlightenment. There is a reaction by artists to the brutality of fundamentalism both Islam and Christianity. Artists are exploring spiritual paths against these extremes. Leonard wrote these poems during his ten year devotion to Buddhism spent in an ashram in California.

“Phillip will perform live on stage with full ensemble and singers and all the visual motifs will be taken from Leonard Cohen’s own drawings and water colours. This season is shared with Toronto, the Lincoln Centre in New York and the Barbican in London.”

The Musical Mavericks season is enticing – incorporating performances by DBR and the Mission, the Australian String Quartet performing Gorecki, Glass and Meale, and the ASO presenting Living Toys by UK composer Thomas Ades , Last Round by Golijov and Zoom and Zip by Elena Kats-Chernin. The Adelaide Chamber Singers will present Gorecki’s Misere at St Peters Cathedral and the ASO, with featured electric violinist Tracy Silverman, will present Dharma at Big Sur, the work John Adams wrote for the opening of the Walt Disney concert hall in Los Angeles. There are prominent jazz events also, with a concert by avant- garde legend, Ornette Coleman and, yet another ASO collaboration, with Billy Cobham and Colin Townes to present the Mahavishnu Orchestra jazz fusion classic Meeting of the Spirits.

In theatre there is a welcome return of the Schaubuhne company from Berlin whose Nora was a highlight in 2006. Director Thomas Ostermeier returns with a play about “the other great dysfunctional couple in world drama” – Maggie and Brick from Tennessee Williams’ 1955 classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Also from the Schaubhne comes Moving Target, a premiere work by Marius von Mayenburg and directed by Benedict Andrews, a graduate from Flinders University Drama Centre, whose work ranges from Ur- Faust in the 2000 Festival to an array of productions for the Sydney Theatre Company. He is now based in Berlin and his return to Adelaide with this production is much anticipated. The Kassys company from the Netherlands will present Kommer (Sorrow) a work using live performance and film which examines the lives of the actors as well as the characters they play. Another highlight will be the RSC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Directed by Tim Supple, and set in India, it is presented in English and six Indian and Sri Lankan dialects. With homage to the famous Peter Brook “white box” production, it has toured in India and played at Stratford to enthusiastic audiences. From South Africa’s State Theatre comes Township Stories, a thriller about murders in a post-apartheid township written by Paul Grootboom and Presley Chweneyagae.

There are Australian premieres also – Brink Productions have When the Rain Stops Falling, a new play by Andrew Bovell on the theme of global warming, and Oddbodies’ Sean Riley will direct his text, The Angel and the Red Priest about the life of Vivaldi.

In the dance program, To Be Straight With You, from DV8 Physical Theatre, is a likely talking point. Drawing from hours of audio interviews, director Lloyd Newson, whose Enter Achilles will be warmly remembered from the 1996 festival, takes a close look at religious fundamentalism and its view of sexuality, pleasure and gender. While Sheehy has seen many recent works dealing with these issues and programmed some before, he observes – “this one goes head-on for the vigorous debate that has to be had.” Other events include Sylvie Guillem in Sacred Monsters, Force Majeure’s generational study The Age I’m In as well as works by Emmanuel Gat and Chunky Move.

With an extensive film program of documentaries including Scott Hicks’ Glass: A Portrait in Twelve Parts, visual arts exhibitions of major indigenous work from Michael Riley and artists from the Grand Sandy Desert, Writers’ Week, Womadelaide and the Persian Garden, Sheehy’s 2008 Adelaide Bank Festival is loaded to the gunnels. With additional funds from Government, this festival has the kind of heft that only a biennial event can muster. Scheduling 81 events, compared to 60 last time, Brett Sheehy has provided continuity and consolidation, innovation and a fresh approach to the familiar. Reflecting on his second effort, Sheehy muses : “when you are given two shots – to what extent do you try to reinvent the wheel, or do you develop the relationship you’ve already begun ? I hope this doesn’t sound selfish, but I also wanted to continue this journey for myself.”

“A Festival of Light and Entertainment” The Adelaide Review, No.328, October 26, 2007, pp.22-23.

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