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The 6 coolest things we saw at Brisbane Festival

Written by
Ben Neutze

When compared to its siblings in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, Brisbane Festival is still a relative newcomer on the scene. It started in 1996 and is only celebrating its tenth anniversary as an annual festival this year.

But it’s attracting some killer acts and drawing growing crowds. The figures haven’t been finalised for this year’s iteration (which still has another week left to go), but it’s looking like it’ll set records for both attendances and ticket sales. That’s been helped along by River of Light – The Story of Maiwar, a ten-minute light, water and laser show just across the river from the festival village. It’s lighting up three times a night, drawing hordes of people to the village, which feels genuinely like the heart of the festival. And – shock horror – you can wander around the entire precinct with your drinks in real glassware. No disposable tumblers here!

We spent a weekend up north enjoying the first major festival of Australia’s warmer months, and here’s a taste of what we loved.

A solo performance in a hotel room

One of the best things a festival can do is make you look at a city, and the spaces within it, in a slightly different light. That’s exactly what happens in Australian dancer Joel Bray’s Biladurang, in which he invites a group of around 16 people into his suite for a glass of bubbles and some rather intimate confessions.

The show is part monologue, part chat and participatory performance, and part contemporary dance work. At one point, he leaves the suite to take a bath – footage of which is beamed into the bedroom on CCTV – and returns covered in soap suds. He then dresses and continues the story. That Bray is able to make something cohesive out of all these different elements is down largely to his humour, charisma and openness with the audience. It’s impressive that it never feels intimidating, despite the intimacy of the set-up (and the nudity).

The work was developed when Bray was touring and living between various cities. Hotels had become his home in many ways, but there’s something about those temporary spaces that can leave you feeling unanchored. And, in a lot of ways, the show is about Bray’s search for an anchor as he floats around the world. He shares stories from his life, musing on his sexual awakening as a gay man, the way he relates to sex now, and how he’s perceived by the world as a light-skinned Wiradjuri man. It turns out, the thing that holds Bray together is his connection to country and the stories of his ancestors – particularly the story of the biladurang, or platypus. When he turns the focus onto the audience, and asks their origin story, the connections formed are deeply moving.

An entire house built live on stage

American theatre-maker and illusionist Geoff Sobelle was last seen in Australia in 2016, when he brought hundreds of cardboard boxes to Sydney Festival in The Object Lesson. In that show, he conjured up stories and worlds from the boxes and the items within them, but in Home he performs an even greater miracle: he brings an entire two-storey house to life before our eyes. Across the first hour of the show, we see walls popping up, doors being installed, objects being unpacked and the stories of the people within the house coming to life. It’s a little like watching a busy construction site, but far more entertaining. 

Photograph: Hillarie Jason

Directed by Lee Sunday Evans, the show is all about the rituals of home, whether that’s showering, jumping into bed, greeting visitors, washing dishes or eating a meal. The real magic is in how it transforms these mundane, everyday tasks into something beautiful, vibrant, theatrical and choreographed, helped along by Elvis Perkins’ gorgeously wry, folksy songs, performed live on stage. The cast are all committed to the enormous tasks they have in both construction and performance, and Steven Dufala’s set is a feat of engineering and illusion.

When the show approaches the 60-minute mark, you start to wonder how it might sustain itself to the full 100-minute run time. But suddenly audience members are invited onto the stage, shifting the dynamic of the show entirely. The number of invited guests starts to grow and grow, and all are given a role to play in a wild house party. The sheer logistics of the crowd control are staggering, and it turns out creating a performance with a cast of 30 or 40 unrehearsed audience members is the most impressive trick of all. 

A drag queen redefine the lip sync

A key part of any drag queen’s lip sync is, surely, making sure you’re mouthing the words to a song in sync with the pre-recorded track, right? That’s literally why it’s called a lip sync.

But in Yummy, a drag variety show by mainly Melbourne-based performers, Benjamin Hancock employs technology to reimagine the lip sync. And we’re pretty sure he doesn’t actually move his lips at all. With a smartphone strapped to his mouth, showing lips moving in sync to Paloma Faith’s ‘Only Love Can Hurt Like This’, Hancock dances slowly around the stage draped in skimpy black lingerie. It’s at once absurd, provocative and heartbreakingly beautiful.

The show itself is still fairly new to the festival circuit, but it embraces drag’s nightclub roots in an inclusive and inventive way, incorporating live music, burlesque and comedy. (Karen from Finance’s performance of Vanessa Carlton’s ‘A Thousand Miles’ is a highlight.)

It’s funny, sexy and knows how to bring the party to the theatre. It also celebrates women in drag, which is a very welcome change.

Two circus performers climb inside a giant condom

One of the biggest shows at the festival comes from the company behind Limbo, Blanc de Blanc, and most of the biggest hit alt-cabaret shows that have toured Australia in recent years. But Strut & Fret’s latest, ambitiously titled Life: The Show takes a slightly more serious approach. Through circus and comedy, it traces the trials of one man’s often mundane life, seeking to pose some existential questions.

The show itself doesn’t quite live up to that almighty task – and really abandons it in favour of thrills halfway through – but it features some jaw-dropping moments and a unique aerial act that comes, appropriately, when the central character is finally sleeping with his wife. Two performers climb within a giant plastic tube, hanging from the ceiling of the spiegeltent, chasing each other up and down the shiny, translucent structure in a surprisingly elegant dance. It’s not exactly a condom (both ends are open, so it wouldn’t be particularly effective) but it’s clear to see what they’re getting at.

A terrifying séance inside a shipping container

Séance has already had seasons in Melbourne and Sydney, and now it’s giving Brisbane a scare. It’s a deceptively simple concept: an audience enters a pitch-black shipping container and dons high quality headphones to listen to pre-recorded audio for 20 minutes. But holy moley, it’s a lot scarier than it sounds.

What you don’t count on is just how disorientating being plunged into total darkness can be, and how much the audio can play tricks on your other senses. That’s why you’re given the option – at the last minute – to back out. And it’s strongly advised that you do so if you’re prone to claustrophobia.

Photograph: Supplied

At first you hear a door creak open and are instructed to place your hands on the table running down the centre of the container. As the host of the séance enters, you can hear and feel him walking down the middle of the table, greeting the assembled guests. Soon enough, he invites the spirits in, and the audio is so strong you can pinpoint exactly where in the room the various sounds are coming from – or at least where the artists behind Séance want you to believe they’re coming from.

But spirits, being what they are, refuse to be contained and don’t exactly behave. And it seems somebody has taken their hands off the table – you’d better hope it wasn’t you.

It’s just 20 minutes, but you certainly wouldn’t want it to be much longer.

A Melbourne performer bid farewell to men

Emma Mary Hall is done with men. And in 2018, it’s maybe not too difficult to understand why that would be the case. But for her final hurrah, she’s seeking to understand men better, and goes on a deep dive into masculinity in this monologue-cum-comedic lecture. Across 15 chapters, she dissects gender, telling anecdotes from the men in her life and intersecting those stories with her own research. It’s a particularly slick production thanks to Lindsay Cox’s video projections, which illustrate the points Hall makes.

It’s not always clear exactly where the material is headed – and it tends to leave some segments hanging in a way that’s not totally satisfying – but Hall is funny enough to cover those dramaturgical cracks and keep the audience on side.

Brisbane Festival is running until September 29. See the full program here.

Can't make it up to the sunshine state? Check out the best shows in Melbourne this month.

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