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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
Opening Night Sydney Festival 2020 supplied
Photograph: Simon Gosselin
Theatre, Drama

Opening Night

Sydney Opera House, Sydney

John Cassavetes’ 1977 movie about an ageing actress self-combusting in the out-of-town tryouts for a new Broadway show has developed a devoted cult following since its premiere. Now a new stage version, by auteur director Cyril Teste, is one of the headlining events at Sydney Festival. French acting great Isabelle Adjani takes on the leading role.

2
Black Ties Sydney Festival 2020 supplied
Photograph: Garth Oriander
Theatre

Black Ties

Sydney Town Hall, Sydney

Avid Australian theatregoers know Ilbijerri Theatre Company as one of the country’s leading makers of Indigenous work. We’re probably not as familiar with Te Rēhia Theatre, one of New Zealand’s leading companies for Māori theatre. But this Sydney Festival show, to be staged in Sydney Town Hall, is all about the coming together of First Nations cultures and communities, which is why the companies have teamed up.

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3
The White Album Sydney Festival 2020 supplied
Photograph: Reed Hutchinson
Theatre, Drama

Joan Didion's The White Album

Roslyn Packer Theatre, Millers Point

In many ways, now is the perfect time to revisit Joan Didion’s 1979 essay about the end of an era – as an American counter-culture started to crush itself. That sort of cultural disintegration feels all too familiar to us now, which is why director and artist Lars Jan has adapted the work for the stage. He’s created a striking visual production which uses an onstage audience.

4
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. 

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5
Anthem Melbourne Festival 2019 supplied
Photograph: Pia Johnson
Theatre, Drama

Anthem

Roslyn Packer Theatre, Millers Point
4 out of 5 stars

It’s almost miraculous that, two decades after they collaborated on the landmark play Who’s Afraid of the Working Class, the Australian theatre dream team of writers Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas and composer Irine Vela are back together again. The opportunity presented by Anthem – to collectively grapple with what this country is, and the conflicts that lie at its core – proved too lucrative to resist.

6
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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7
Mark Gambino
Dance

Colossus

Carriageworks, Eveleigh
5 out of 5 stars

Stephanie Lake's spectacular Colossus premiered in 2018 as part of Melbourne Fringe and is returning for a Sydney Festival season in 2020. Using 50 bodies, Lake creates striking, sometimes terrifying and always intoxicating stage images in this prodigious dance work.

8
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. 

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9
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). 

10
Holly Herndon Sydney Festival 2020 supplied
Photograph: Boris Camaca
Music, Dance and electronic

Holly Herndon

Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent, Sydney

Holly Herndon is a musician whose comfort zone is on the bleeding edge. The Berlin-based American’s ferociously pioneering brand of electro exists at the tipping point between the avant-garde and the mainstream, equally at home in a concert hall, an art gallery, or a nightclub. 

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11
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.

12
Triple Threat Sydney Festival 2020 supplied
Photograph: The Other Richard
Theatre

Triple Threat

Carriageworks, Eveleigh

When Lucy McCormick’s Triple Threat premiered at Edinburgh Fringe in 2016, Time Out London declared in a five-star review that the show was either the best or worst of the entire festival – and somehow probably both. Directed by Ursula Martinez, McCormick retells the New Testament in an appropriately sacreligious fashion.

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13
Laser Beak Man Sydney Festival 2020
Photograph: Dylan Evans
Theatre

Laser Beak Man

Sydney Opera House, Sydney

If you've never heard of Laser Beak Man, here's what you need to know: Tim Sharp, a Queensland artist who has autism, created the mystical superhero when he was just 11 years old as a way of sharing his humour and imagination with the world. 

14
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.

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15
Tenebrae Sydney Festival 2020 supplied
Photograph: Sim Canetty-Clarke
Music, Classical and opera

Tenebrae

City Recital Hall, Sydney

There are choirs and then there are British choirs: when it comes to the discipline of ensemble singing, the UK has a world-beating tradition going back hundreds of years. A relative newcomer to this hallowed lineage, the London-based Tenebrae was founded in 2001 by director and former King’s Singer Nigel Short.

16
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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17
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. 

18
Time Flies Sydney Festival 2020 supplied
Photograph: Nic Fenton
Theatre, Circuses

Time Flies

Seymour Centre, Darlington

A trip to the circus inevitably involves an ample number of OMG moments, when bodies fly through the air, clamber on top of one another, contort into infeasible shapes and generally defy belief. A trip to see the Flying Fruit Fly Circus delivers exactly the same experience, but with the added jaw-drop that these are youth performers – aged 8-18 – at the very highest levels of their craft. 

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19
Double Delicious Sydney Festival 2020 supplied
Photograph: Courtney Stewart
Theatre

Double Delicious

Carriageworks, Eveleigh

It might be a catch phrase of MasterChef, but it rings true outside reality TV: cooking is an expression of a person’s soul, their life experiences and their culture. This show from Contemporary Asian Australian Performance is designed to demonstrate those connections, fusing storytelling and dining.

20
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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