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Sydney Festival

See our top 20 picks of the 2020 program

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Dodecalis Luminarium Sydney Festival 2020 supplied
Photograph: Alan Parkinson

There are plenty of reasons why January is one of the best times to be a Sydneysider: the whole city slows down a bit so we can enjoy those long balmy days outdoors and everybody seems just a little cheerier. But Sydney Festival (Jan 8-26) is at the top of our list.

The annual three-week cultural event takes over the city with an eclectic range of theatre, dance, music, visual arts, community events and cabaret. And the recipe is as eclectic as ever in 2020, with a handful of high profile local and international shows, and a bunch of smaller scale stuff that’ll keep you buzzing for the whole festival.

This year marks director Wesley Enoch’s fourth at the helm, and it’s a program defined by the breadth of new Australian work (and most of it on a pretty big scale), Indigenous work and a stellar kids’ program. Enoch, who is an Australian director and writer, has always had a strong focus on local work, and has commissioned even more for this year. Sydney Festival now claims the title of the biggest commissioner of new Australian work in the country.

So what can you expect from the festival? We’ve picked our highlights, trying to reflect the full diversity of the program as well as the shows we’re sure will challenge, provoke, move, or just entertain the bejesus out of you.

RECOMMENDED: How to score cheap theatre tickets in Sydney.

Sydney Festival 2020 top picks

1
Life the Show Sydney Festival 2020
Photograph: Mik Lavage
Theatre, Circuses

Life: the Show

Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent, Sydney

One of the biggest shows at Sydney 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. 

2
Buŋgul Sydney Festival 2020 supplied
© Priscilla Barrapami Yunipingu
Music

Buŋgul

Sydney Opera House, Sydney

On July 25, 2017, Australia lost one of the greatest musicians of our age: Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. To celebrate his legacy and a remarkable musical gift that defied barriers and crossed cultures, this touching tribute to his talent has been created on Country in North East Arnhem Land. 

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3
Scott Silven
Photograph: Alice Boreas
Theatre

At the Illusionist's Table

QT Sydney, Sydney

It is one thing to watch a magic show, with an illusionist able to deliver smooth patter and clever conjuring from the distance of a stage, the aid of clever lighting and the possibility of audience plants. But it's a very different matter to have dinner with a 'mentalist' and illusionist and experience the magic at close quarters and in an unpredictable setting. 

4
Bran Nue Dae supplied 2020 Opera Australia
Photograph: Damian Kelly
Theatre, Musicals

Bran Nue Dae

Riverside Theatres, Parramatta

In 1990, Jimmy Chi's musical about a runaway teenage Aboriginal boy on a wild and eye-opening road trip became a surprise hit. Now it's returning for a 30th anniversary tour produced by a group of Australia's biggest opera companies (but don't worry, the rock and pop-inspired score isn't suddenly going to get an operatic bent). 

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5
Dodecalis Luminarium Sydney Festival supplied 2020
Photograph: John Owens
Art, Sculpture and installations

Dodecalis Luminarium

Tumbalong Park, Sydney

From the outside, the spectacular luminaria created by UK company Architects of Air look a little like retro spaceships landed from an alien planet. But if you venture inside the Dodecalis luminarium, which is popping up in Tumbalong Park, Darling Harbour from January 8, you’ll discover no invading super race.

6
Radiant Flux - Rebecca Baumann - Carriageworks
Photograph: Daniel Boud
Art

Rebecca Baumann: Radiant Flux

Carriageworks, Eveleigh

Carriageworks has been home to its fair share of large-scale artworks in recent years, including Nick Cave's monumental 'Until' and Daniel Buren's playground of oversized kids' toys. But Rebecca Baumann's 'Radiant Flux' reaches even further, turning the Redfern arts wonderland into a giant kaleidoscope of colour.

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7
Black Cockatoo Sydney Festival 2020 supplied
Photograph: Christian Trinder
Theatre

Black Cockatoo

Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli

In 1868, a group of Aboriginal cricketers embarked upon a pioneering journey to England and became the first Australian sporting team to tour internationally. So you’d think the players might be more well known and celebrated, right? This funny and affecting play by Geoffrey Atherden (Mother and Son, BabaKiueria) gives the players their appropriate due.

8
Six the Musical Sydney Opera House 2019 supplied
Photograph: Idil Sukan
Theatre, Musicals

Six the Musical

Sydney Opera House, Sydney

Sing along if you know this one: Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. After becoming a surprise West End hit, Six the Musical is set to have its Australian premiere season at the Sydney Opera House. Much like Hamilton before it, the pop musical is making history buffs out of legions of musical theatre tragics, telling the story of the six wives of Henry VIII. 

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9
Daniel Boyd: Video Works Sydney Festival 2020 supplied
Daniel Boyd, 'Yamani' (2018)
Art

Daniel Boyd: Video Works

Carriageworks, Eveleigh

Kudjala and Gangalu artist Daniel Boyd is known for his signature style, which sits somewhere between traditional Aboriginal dot-painting and Impressionist pointilism. The dot motif has appeared in plenty of his work, from large-scale public art installations to smaller paintings. 

10
Vernon Ah Kee The Island Campbelltown Arts Centre 2020 supplied
Image courtesy Vernon Ah Kee and Milani Gallery
Art

Vernon Ah Kee: The Island

Campbelltown Arts Centre, Campbelltown

Vernon Ah Kee is one of the most diverse artists working in Australia at the moment, with work that ranges from large-scale drawings to text-based works, installations and video. He offers searing critiques of Australian culture from an Indigenous perspective and is set to do so in this show at Campbelltown Arts Centre.

Tick off your Sydney bucket list

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