By Rita Bratovich
Barely have the embers of Sydney’s New Year celebrations burnt out and the city is getting ready to light up again with its favourite summer party – Sydney Festival. Since 1977, the festival has been devoted to providing diverse indoor and outdoor entertainment for a wide and varied crowd.
“An inherent part of our remit is that notion of broad appeal and variety of entry points for the audience, and by the audience I also mean people who attend free events,” says Vivia Hickman, Executive Producer of Sydney Festival 2019. Free outdoor events have been mainstays of the festival since it began, with recurring signature events that include Symphony Under The Stars, Ferrython, and the Hyde Park Hub. Each year it also showcases new works, local content, and international acts, from emerging artists through to A-listers. Asked to provide some of her own picks, Hickman named a cross-section of events that illustrate the eclectic appeal of the festival.
Leading off with Beware Of Pity, Hickman nominates this stage adaptation of a highly charged 1939 Austrian novel as “very much one of our centrepiece shows.” Performed in German with English subtitles, the play has universal social and emotional resonance.
Inventive and visually spectacular, Home examines ideas around domestic bliss. With its thrilling production elements, Hickman describes it as “a really gorgeous piece of theatre.”
Belvoir St Theatre will get a chance to spread its wings when it teams up with Co-Curious to present Counting And Cracking at Sydney Town Hall. This powerful drama about a Sri Lankan family in Australia spans generations, borders, and sensibilities, and includes a communal Sri Lankan meal before the show.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, separate interactive installations have been set up around the city. Apollo 11 at Barangaroo features three large astronaut statues at various locations. Each one has a QR code that connects to information and stories about the lesser known heroes of the space race. Experience weightlessness with Moon Drops at Darling Harbour – a number of large, button-shaped, water-filled bladders that you can walk or lie on. “They provide a very intimate experience as people lie next to each other – you know, strangers – it’s very much a piece about connection,” says Hickman. At World Square, you can jump on a Lunar Velocipede (flying bicycle) or ride your own bike and contribute your kilometres to Fly Me To The Moon, a project inviting cyclists to cumulatively pedal the distance from the Earth to the Moon.
Queensland company, Dancenorth is debuting Dust, a work created by Kyle Page and Amber Haines, co-directors/choreographers and off-stage partners, who were inspired by the pending birth of their first child.
“We thought very deeply about the world into which Jasper was about to be born,” says Page. “Some of the things that we saw as being challenging aspects of his existence, his experience. Looking at environmental damage, […] mass population, […] mass movement around the world of climate refugees and some of the more material aspects of 21st-century existence, the social media world and how technology is shaping and impacting the lives of humans in general.”
The work is truly collaborative; it is the result of discussions with family and friends, workshopping with dancers, incorporating architectural design from Liminal Studios, and inviting violinist Jessica Moss to co-compose the sound score and perform improvisations on stage. The dancers are also given room to improvise, utilising stage elements to deconstruct and rebuild the set.
“It creates a really beautiful sense of ephemerality…no two shows are alike,” says Page.
For something a little more rambunctious, pop into the famous Spiegeltent and see Pigalle.
“I like to think of it as a burlesque meets disco vaudeville,” says Director, Craig Ilott, attempting to describe this amalgam of cabaret, burlesque, vaudeville, variety, circus – all set to a 70s soundtrack. It reflects the ambience of the Pigalle district in Paris, famed for its free-spirited, sexy, inventive culture and home to the Moulin Rouge. The local and international line-up includes Marcia Hines, iOTA, Kitty Bang Bang and other incredible singers, acrobats and performers. Bangarra dancer Waangenga Blanco not only adds a unique indigenous element but weaves the whole show together as a recurring figure, replacing the traditional MC. The eclectic program should attract a varied crowd, something that appeals to Ilott.
“I’ve always been more interested in any work I’ve done, where you start marrying different audiences, where you marry, for instance, a music audience with a theatre audience. What happens when they get in each other’s spaces is exciting.”
The venue itself, the Spiegeltent, adds another layer with its authentic, nostalgic charm and intimacy.
“There’s a great energy that happens within that space…it’s really crisp that energy, and it’s really exciting,” says Ilott.
A Ghost In My Suitcase is an award-winning children’s book by Gabrielle Wang that has been adapted for the stage by Western Australian theatre group, Barking Gecko. Artistic director, Matt Edgerton collaborated with Wang, co-director, Ching Ching Ho, playwright Vanessa Bates and an exemplary creative team to faithfully realise this unique and challenging tale.
“It’s a sort of epic, fantasy adventure story, really,” says Edgerton. During development, he and the core creative team travelled to China and took videos at sites referred to in the book. These videos are being projected onto flat stage props during the performance, and along with kabuki drop, animated objects, and enhanced suggestion help deliver the magic and drama inherent in the story.
“There are times when we want the effect to be quite spectacular for the audience,” says Edgerton. The story also contains dark elements, which Edgerton acknowledges:
“We don’t want to shy away from provocative material […] The theatre is a safe place to explore dangerous ideas,” he explains. “Through storytelling, people can explore big themes, like this work does, like grief, processing the death of a mother, coming of age, you know, ideas about family, the gifts you might have and discovering your heritage.”
One of the festival’s flagship events is Shanghai Mimi, a homage to 1930s Shanghai, at the time considered the “Paris of the East.”
“People in the West don’t quite understand how big the arts industry and the music industry were in China pre-Second World War. It was really progressive and doing some amazing things,” says Sophie Koh, singer/musician and one of the stars of the show. The young pop artist was spotted on Rock Whiz and Spicks And Specks and selected as lead singer for Shanghai Mimi because she had the right look and could sing in Mandarin. The antique version of Mandarin being used, however, required some extra learning and “more and more visits to [her] mum’s house.” And that wasn’t the only challenge.
“I’ve never done theatre or sung jazz songs or done any kind of cabaret or been fitted with these 10kg fur coats and tried to stand in high heels for this long!”
Koh is onstage and singing throughout, backed by a live jazz band made up of musicians from around the world. They will perform traditional Chinese folk songs while acrobats from the Qinghai Acrobatic Troupe present a stunning routine which comprises athletic prowess, modern dance and showmanship. An internationally acclaimed doyen of edgy, transformative performance art, Moira Finucane is directing the show.
“Moira’s been really – just so loud and just so colourful – and so exhausting!” says Koh, describing rehearsals with Finucane. “You go to your room exhausted but just really happy and grateful that someone like that exists in the world.”
The calibre of the performers, spectacular costumes, the mix of nostalgia and avant-garde and the great sense of fun make this a show not to be missed.
There is so much more in the festival program. Pick up a guide or go online – shows are booking fast!
Until Jan 27. Various Venues & Prices. More Info: www.sydneyfestival.org.au