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A work of art

Keith Gallasch: a preview of selected productions

Richard III Richard III
photo Arno Declair, courtesy Adelaide Festival

"His temper knows no middle state, / Extreme alike in love or hate."
Handel, Saul

Saul, King of Israel, made mad by his jealousy of David, slayer of Goliath and saviour of the realm, glowers, rages and relentlessly intimidates family and subjects. In the score, his role is critical, not dominant, but in Barrie Kosky's fantastical realisation of Handel's great oratorio as opera, Saul's stage presence is expanded and intensified, his delusion and inevitable destruction intricately and passionately delineated—ever faithful to the vision of the composer and librettist Charles Jennen, the pair's fine sense of drama allowing Kosky to open out the oratorio, respecting its integrity and unleashing its enormous power. It's a gloriously wrenching experience, this luxurious pleasure of being invited to observe at a distance and at once empathically inhabit an extreme state of being.

Hearing about the 2017 Adelaide Festival program from Co-Artistic Directors Rachel Healy and Neil Armfield (he on the phone from rehearsals of The Ring in Melbourne) at a press briefing last year at the Sydney Opera House, I recall being immediately struck by a number of core works that pivoted about such states of being and realised in highly expressive productions—Kosky's Saul, Thomas Ostermeier’s Richard III, the Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young dance work Bettrofenheit and Motus' MDLSX. So too will Andrew Bovell’s Secret River also be writ large—performed in a disused Adelaide Hills quarry, recalling the 1980 Adelaide Festival staging of Peter Brook’s The Conference of the Birds and the subsequent 1988 performance of The Mahabharata with its sense of the sacred, this time on what is inherently Aboriginal sacred ground.

Saul Saul
photo Bill Cooper, courtesy Adelaide Festival

While Saul, Richard III and Secret River reveal the wounds that scar nations (the fall of kings in the first two, the unresolved divisions of race wrought by colonisation in the latter), Bettrofenheit (a form of post-traumatic sadness) springs from the agonies of a parent, Young, whose own young children died tragically, the performance an act of grieving shared with a dance company and realised with “phantasmagorical clowning and mask work,” says Healy of a work she also describes as "almost [emotionally] unbearable." In Complicite's The Encounter, an actor, Richard Katz, plays his director, the work's writer Simon McBurney, whose emotional engagement with the true story of a photographer lost in the Amazon rainforest results in the sonic conjuring of that world (the audience in headphones) and a living out of severe anxieties about the vulnerability of tribal peoples, the environment and his small daughter to the depredations of advanced civilisation. Bettrofenheit and The Encounter provide the link between works of scale with ones that focus intimately on individuals, some living and some of them the artists we'll see onstage.

MDLSX from Italian performance company Motus features “punk god/dess” Silvia Calderoni delving, says Rachel Healy, into “an archive of family footage of growing up as girl/boy,” interwoven with passages from the Jeffrey Eugenides novel Middlesex (2002) and the music of The Smiths. R.E.M. and others. Healy says of this account of “being born twice” that, aptly, “it’s wild and hard to classify.”

This sense of the intensely personal recurs in a cluster of seemingly gentler works. In Every Brilliant Thing (writer Duncan McMillan with Jonny Donahoe, performer James Rowland; UK), a man recalls dealing at six years of age with his mother’s attempted suicide and its legacy. In another solo performance, Wot no fish (UK), Danny Braverman discovers in a shoe box his great uncle’s drawings for his wife inscribed on pay packets from 1926 to 1982, revealing aspects of love and family life. In Portraits in Motion (Germany), Volker Gerling shares with his audience photographs (projected onto a large screen from the artist's engagingly handmade flip books) of portraits made of strangers on his travels and with whom he manages to briefly bond.

Some works in the festival give intimate voice and body to non-performers. William Yang and Annette Shun Wah, in The Backstories, another of their productions that reveal the complex lives of immigrants, present a trio of Adelaide citizens—Malaysian-born chef Cheong Liew, Australian women’s soccer star Moya Dodd and fashion designer Razak Mohammed—each exploring their lives through their private photo collections. Choreographer Jérôme Bel, who has playfully challenged the norms of contemporary dance for two decades, has chosen 15 very different Adelaide locals to attempt various dance styles from moonwalking to ballet, "blur[ring] the line between failure and success," says Healy, describing the work as “irreverent but also moving, funny and poignant." These performers might not speak but their bodies, presences and how they address Bel's challenge will tell us much.

Gardens Speak Gardens Speak
photo Jessi Hunniford, courtesy Adelaide Festival

Audience members themselves become performers in Arab performance-maker Tania El Khoury's Gardens Speak which, says Healy "gives grieving shape for the victims of the Assad murders" in Syria. Many families have had to bury their kin in home gardens. Each participant, with a torch and in protective plastic clothing, approaches a low mound of earth, digs into it with their hands and 'unearths' a voice that tells of a lost life. A gentle ceremony of acknowledgement and sympathetic grieving, Gardens Speak is also a stark reminder of individual lives that remain buried beneath statistics.

The wounds that Saul, Richard III, Betroffenheit, The Encounter, MDLSX, Every Brilliant Thing and Gardens Speak represent each seeks healing through art, just as The Backstories, Wot no fish, Portraits in Motion and Gala should provide the gentle affirmations of well-being that can be shared in the absence of unwarranted hatred, oppression and war.

A celebration

Festivals provide a sense of ceremony, of intense emotion and transcendence, of communality and of continuity: Secret River in a quarry; the recreation of a 1920s floating palais on the River Torrens ("a gift to Adelaide" from the Co-Directors says Healy); the welcome return of former festival director Barrie Kosky. We experience works and states of being we might otherwise not. We're compelled to judge: Armfield declares, "Lars Eidinger gives an utterly mesmerising performance that surpasses any performance of King Richard that I’ve seen—and that includes [Antony] Sher." In interviews Kosky sees Saul as "revolutionary" in form—Handel's oratorios as inherently more dramatic than his operas. Armfield thinks Kosky's production "revolutionary," breathing new life into an 18th century work that was passionately adopted by 19th century choral societies, just as Kosky sees himself as inheriting and revitalising the legacy of Peter Sellars' seminal 1996 production of another Handel oratorio, Theodora. Adding to the festival's sense of occasion and complementing Secret River, 1967 Music in the Key of Yes is a wonderful celebration in song and film of the Referendum that acknowledged Aboriginal peoples as citizens of Australia.

There's more to the 2017 Adelaide Festival than identified by the connections I've made here between apparently kindred productions. Part of the pleasure is not to see a festival just as a bunch of best choices, but as a work of art (conceived consciously or not) with its own internal correspondences and synchronicities which will reveal themselves as the festival comes to life and the ritual takes hold. When it's over, we might ask, as we might of any work of art, 'Did it sustain us? Did it change us?' Once upon a time, Adelaide Festivals had that gravitas. Does it this time; it has that air about it.

Betroffenheit Betroffenheit
photo Wendy D, courtesy Adelaide Festival 2017

See Ben Brooker's interview with Michele Ryan of Restless Dance Theatre and Darcy Grant of Gravity and Other Myths about their Adelaide Festival debut productions, Intimate Space and Backbone.

Visit the Adelaide Festival website to see the complete 2017 program.

Adelaide Festival, 3-19 March

RealTime issue #137 Feb-March 2017 pg.

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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