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a circle of people in bright yellow tops mid-leap
Photograph: Supplied/Sydney Festival/Justin Ma

It's gonna be a mighty all-Australian Sydney Festival this year

Here's our insider's guide to the the 2021 program

By Stephen A Russell and Alannah Maher
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You’d be forgiven for thinking this year might have been a bit stressful for Sydney Festival artistic director Wesley Enoch. For is last hurrah in the top gig before Olivia Ansell steps in to program 2022, he had to deal with the minor inconvenience of a city in lockdown and international borders sealed until goodness knows when.

Truth is, the eternally effervescent Noonuccal Nuugim man kinda took in his stride. “I’ve always found moving on to be very positive anyway,” he says. “What I found is during this period is focusing on: what do you value? What do you think’s important?”

Providing a platform for Australian and particularly First Nations work has always been a bedrock of what Enoch does. Pivoting to homegrown is in his blood, and Sydney Festival has commissioned 39 works for 2021, only a teeny haircut off 45 this year. “Even more importantly, we’re spending close to $6 million, and it’s all going to Australians, and that’s really important to Australian artists, who’ve done it so tough.”

Embracing the new normal, there will be a brand-new hub: a purpose-built stage called the Headlands in Barangaroo, with the stunning backdrop of the Harbour Bridge playing host to a satellite of stars including Katie Noonan, Paul Capsis and iOTA, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney Symphony Orchestra and circus superstars Gravity and Other Myths. With shows running from Jan 6-25, tickets will be a super-affordable $25.

“Lockdown has taught us new lessons,” Enoch says. “How do we look after each other? How do we value the people? Barangaroo is this notion of a gift to Sydney, saying here, here are these big shows, here’s Katie Noonan. And sure, it’s got to be socially distanced, but in the outdoors, people feel safer.”

There will also be a free livestream of all shows, so even if you’re broke, you can party on at Headlands. “Our instinct was to make the live shows free and the advice given to us is, actually, if you make it free, people will book in, and then choose whether they’re going to come or not. There’s something extra about the live experience, but we just want to make it a free gift and provide access as well.”

Looking back to the very first Sydney Festival presented by Stephen Hall, Enoch notes his predecessor said it was a for the people of Sydney. “It’s for us first, how we celebrate our own city. With twin problems of the lockout laws and then lockdown, people have got out of the habit a little bit of going out. So how do we encourage people? Our Allowed and Local  program is all about celebrating live music in venues again.”

That takes over treasured venues from the Lansdowne to the Factory Theatre, presenting stars like Christine Anu, Urthboy, Emily Wurramara, Ngaiire and more. And Enoch is particularly proud of his expansive Blak Out program, which features a host of exciting First Nations voices.

“Once you get 12 or more, you start to lift up away from representation, and you get a sense of the diversity of voices," Enoch says. The more diversity, the stronger the program is. So Blak Out for me is saying, look at all the different ways of telling stories, and all the different cultural perspectives. And that’s a really important part of how Australians get to accept and understand the power of First Nations voices.”

Sydney Festival 2021 top picks

Four actors in a line
Photograph: Supplied/Nancy Trieu

1. Sex, Drugs and Pork Rolls

Theatre Riverside Theatres, Parramatta

Sex, Drugs and Pork Rolls collects four stories that stitch together the fabric of Australia as it is, not as it has been white-washed to give the appearance of being. Directed by S. Shakthidharan, known for his highly acclaimed production of Belvoir Street's epic Counting and Cracking, has assembled a cast and crew entirely from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and the show is heavily informed by traditions outside mainstream culture, like oral storytelling. Writers Winnie Dunn, Omar Sakr, Shirley Le and Stephen Pham each unravel their version of Western Sydney in monologue form, spanning nighttime bakery ruckuses, foraging for magic mushrooms, and the tale of a mixed-race Tongan woman's Tinder date with a white bodybuilder from Castle Hill. Actors Emily Havea, Henry Vo, Aileen Huynh and Hazem Shammas enact the stories on stage. 

 

A man in overalls cap and short shirt with hairy arms holds a toilet plunger aloft
Supplied/Sydney Festival/Christian Trinder

2. Kenny

Theatre Comedy Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli

If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why something being “the shit” oddly means good instead of poop, then Kenny is the prime example. The show started life as a popular and critical hit mockumentary co-written by and starring Shane Jacobson, with him as the eponymous porta-dunny installer. Now, we're pumped like a septic tank for Kenny's overflow onto the stage as part of Sydney Festival. Opening at Ensemble Theatre on the edge of the harbour at Kirribilli, this number two take has been adapted by playwright Steve Rodgers and will run from January 15, 2021, until February 27. Ben Wood (The Big Time) plays the dunny man with a big heart to match the size of his wrench. Sometimes you have to take a good look at your business.

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Casey Donovan in a sparkly black dress
Photograph: Supplied

3. Casey Donovan in concert

When the chips were down during lockdown, the almighty Casey Donovan brought rocking pop drive-in-style to the Robyn Webster Sports Centre in Tempe, for free. For that, and for her all-round magnificence, we salute her. Well lucky us, the former Australian Idol winner takes over the City Recital Hall stage for a power ballad-powered rock star of a show alongside a big band and alongside musical director Daniel Edmonds during Sydney Festival 2021. For one night only, on January 18, you can join her in belting out the biggest hits, covering everyone from Joni Mitchell to Beyoncé via Adele. Weaving personal stories into the mix, you’ll get to know Donovan that little bit more. Let loose the wind and smoke machines. “Leaving 2020 in the past, 2021 is looking much bigger and brighter,” Donovan says. “Being part of Sydney Festival and the revival of live music. It’s going to be  incredible night.”

First nations woman Jasmin Sheppard performing a dance inspired by the lyrebird
Photograph: Supplied/Samuel James

4. The Complication of Lyrebirds

Dance Campbelltown Arts Centre, Campbelltown

Jasmin Sheppard’s thought-provoking new dance work tackles head-on the pressure many First Nations Australians feel to blend in. Debuting at the Campbelltown Arts Centre January 20-23 as part of Sydney Festival 2021, the idea behind the show has us hooked. As both creator, choreogrpaher and performer, Sheppard adopts the mating dance of the native feathered fancy that famously adopts the calls of prospective mates to appear more attractive to them. “There’s a strong pressure placed on First Nations people to constantly prove ‘how Aboriginal’ we are,” she says. “From the colour of our skin, to that ever-common cringe-worthy question ‘So what percentage are you?’, to how much cultural knowledge we may or may not have had passed onto us.”

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Lindy Lee's bronze, liquid-like globule sculpture 'Unnameable’
Photograph: Anna Kucera

5. Lindy Lee: Moon in a Dew Drop

Art Galleries Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), The Rocks

The Sydney Festival banner has scooped up the MCA's cracking retrospective of Australian-Chinese artist Lindy Lee’s exhilarating career. Lindy Lee: Moon in a Dew Drop celebrates ther genius, nimbly dancing through four decades of jaw-dropping creativity crossing mediums and cultures. Curated by the MCA’s director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, the show pulls together 70 of Brisbane-born, Sydney-based Lee’s works. It’s the most comprehensive overview of Lee’s artistic contribution that’s ever been assembled.

 

A woman with a moustache in a polka dot bikini top and sailors hat flexes her guns
Photograph: Supplied/Sydney Festival

6. HMS Pinafore

Theatre Musicals Riverside Theatres, Parramatta

Ahoy there. The already fruity showtunes of Gilbert and Sullivan get a genderqueer re-do in this Hayes Theatre take on beloved comic opera HMS Pinafore. Directed by Kate Gaul, this Sirens Theatre Co produced show brings the sequins and sea-spray to the Riverside Theatres this time round for Sydney Festival, January 13-23, 2021. There’s a hint of Titanic in this class-smashing romance, in which the captain’s daughter falls for a tattooed sailor with a secret. Our reviewer Cassie Tongue said of the original run, “Camp is embedded in everything… every element is a little more playful than you would expect, even though there’s great fondness behind the tongues in cheeks and twinkles in eyes.”

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a circle of people in bright yellow tops mid-leap
Photograph: Supplied/Sydney Festival/Justin Ma

7. Humans 2.0

Theatre Circuses Carriageworks, Eveleigh

Producing some of the most spectacular circus acts in the world, never mind Australia, Brisbane powerhouse’s Circa are back this Sydney Festival, and they mean business. They’ll amaze jaw-gaping audiences at Carriageworks with a sensuous, sinewy work building on their smash hit Sydney Festival 2017 show. As spun from the mind of artistic director Yaron Lifschitz, the show pushes the boundaries of what circus and acrobatics can be. The towering pile of human excellence on display will celebrate the magnificent power and silky smooth moves of the human body in intimate detail. And composer Ori Lichtik knows just how to match their virtuosic body-bending with a soaring score. He’s ably assisted by Paul Jackson’s dazzling light show.

A black and white close up of a rhino
Photograph: Supplied/Sydney Festival

8. Duba

Theatre Performance art Carriageworks, Eveleigh

More often than not, Marrickville’s puppet masters at the Erth Studio Workshop create magic aimed at kids (though the grown-ups are usually just as awestruck by their wonderous manipulations ). Duba, which means ‘ground’ in the local First Nations language, is a trippy, immersive happening at Carriageworks that turns that idea on its head. It's driven by children, who work incredible avatars of endangered species like rhinos, elephants and our very own Leadbeater’s possum in a work aimed at us crusties. The half-hour experience kicks off in ten-minute intervals throughout the day. Enoch says, “I love that it’s training up young people who will take the adults through and talk about the future.” And the little ones can check out Badu at the Australian National Maritime Museum for a kid-friendly experience that looks at undersea marvels.

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Performer Jonny Hawkins in a  vaguely religious, sorta Hindu, sorta seance-like four-armed configuration with a yellow halo of sorts
Photograph: Supplied/Sydney Festival

9. Maureen: Harbinger of Death

Theatre Performance art Seymour Centre, Darlington

“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety,” goes the Shakespeare line about Cleopatra, and it’s a timely reminder that ageism and putting older women into narrow boxes is not on. Ever. With that in mind, performer Jonny Hawkins delivers a loving tribute to his late friend and ‘working-class glamour queen’ Maureen in this intimate Sydney Festival show, devised with director Nell Ranney. A love letter to the matriarchy and the power, wisdom and passions of older women who defy the tyranny of invisibility, the stripped-back performance recreates her bohemian living room and gleefully acerbic life advice. Hawkins transforms into Maureen with minimal costuming or props, though all velvet, Jatz crackers and cigarettes. It’s Enoch’s wild card pick. “It’s beautiful storytelling, and Maureen’s a brilliant battle-axe.” 

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