Every major capital city in Australia has its own arts festival, but ask those who work in the industry and most will tell you the same thing: Adelaide Festival is the big one. It has a history of attracting the most significant artists in the world. It’s been running since 1960, but its scope is so big it only became an annual event in 2012. Basically, it’s where to go if you want to binge on cutting-edge, high-profile, large-scale international art.
The last two years, under co-artistic directors Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy, have been particularly impressive, and they’ve just announced a third festival for 2019, with 23 shows exclusive to Adelaide and ten world premieres.
Things kick off with Australian expat-turned-European opera heavyweight Barrie Kosky’s production of The Magic Flute on March 1, 2019. That production will totally sell out, but here are seven other reasons to book that ticket and try not to drown in art.
1. This music theatre production crosses through six African countries
South African theatre company Isango Ensemble’s A Man of Good Hope has toured the world extensively but is making its Australian debut at Adelaide Festival. And it’s somewhat appropriate that this work (part opera, part musical) should’ve travelled so far given it’s a story of travel itself. It follows eight-year-old Asad Abdullahi, who, after witnessing the murder of his mother, sets off on an extraordinary journey from Somalia to find a new home.
“He makes his way down south, passing through six African countries as he does so,” says Healy. “There’s been many South African survivor stories that have come through Australia, and this one feels quite different because he is Muslim, but also because as he travels there are these insights that you get about each African nation that feel very well observed and unique.”
Time Out London wrote, in a four-star review: “From a gorgeous Marimba overture to a selection of moving arias, the production – which features music composed by Mandisi Dyantyis and the company – is beautiful to listen to.”
2. The incredible Hofesh Shechter stages a ‘Grand Finale’
Israeli-born, London-based Hofesh Shechter is one of the most in-demand choreographers in the world right now, and he’s bringing his ensemble to Adelaide with their latest piece, Grand Finale. It features a live band alongside his company of dancers as they move towards the end of the world.
“It’s a full-length, massive work, but it never for one moment flags in its energy or invention,” Armfield says. “There is a desperate sense of civilisation reaching a point of chaos, and at one point the little orchestra plays on from the deck of the Titanic.”
Healy says: “His choreographic language is really interesting – it’s taken from folk dance, from military exercises, from club dancing, even the gym.”
3. One of the world’s greatest dancers performs this solo work
Natalia Osipova is a principal artist with the Royal Ballet in London and was two years ago named by the Telegraph (UK) in a list of “12 of the greatest ballerinas of all time”. She’s one of just three on the list who are still performing.
But in Australia, she’ll be doing something a little bit different to her Royal Ballet repertoire, performing this solo work by Australian Meryl Tankard. Two Feet premiered at Brisbane Expo in 1988, telling the story of Olga Spessivtzeva, a Russian ballerina who toured Australia in the 1930s but became obsessed with perfectionism (a little like Natalie Portman in Black Swan).
“Eventually her obsession with dance became her downfall,” Healy says. “She had a terrible nervous breakdown and spent the last years of her life in a mental asylum.”
The work was originally performed by Tankard and included elements of her own story, but it will be reworked for this new staging.
“Because it’s a work that relies on the personal history of the dancer, it’s going to be recreated with Natalia’s own history in the work.” Healy says. “There’s her history in Russia, training in the Russian technique, joining the Bolshoi, then ultimately leaving Russia because she felt she had no creative freedom, and moving to London. All of that is going to be built into the work.”
4. Adelaide’s most exciting circus company premieres a new show
Adelaide’s Gravity and Other Myths has been one of the biggest international arts success stories to come out of Australia in recent years. The circus company had been steadily chipping away and creating impressive work since 2009, but they had a major break when Healy and Armfield commissioned them to create Backbone in 2017, offering a longer rehearsal period and more support.
Now they’re premiering a new work called Out of Chaos… which will be directed by Darcy Grant. They have a very distinctive style of stripped-back, acrobatic circus, which they’ll use to explore the tensions between order and chaos in our lives.
The company are about to start a second troupe to keep up with the international demand and have already booked a nine-month season in Berlin for this work.
5. One of the world’s most provocative and daring theatre directors brings a recent hit to Adelaide
Swiss director Milo Rau has been building an impressive reputation over the last decade and was recently appointed artistic director of NTGent, where he issued a ten-point manifesto on the making of theatre. The ninth point is: “At least one production per season must be rehearsed or performed in a conflict or war zone, without any cultural infrastructure.” And yes, his company is delivering on that promise.
Adelaide mightn’t be a war zone just yet, but Rau’s La Reprise Histoire(s) du théâtre should add a certain degree of conflict to the city. It tells the story of the murder of a young gay man in Liège, Belgium in 2012. But in addition to that story, you see actors auditioning to play those roles, revealing the whole mechanism of theatre.
“The event is depicted in excruciating, detailed realism,” Armfield says. “It’s filmed, and it’s like you’re watching an absolute convincing documentary of the event.”
But you also watch the actors rehearse those scenes, so you see exactly how that onstage violence is evoked.
Healy adds: “La reprise means ‘the repetition’, and when he’s saying it’s ‘la reprise: history of theatre’, the idea is that like Greek theatre, you use the environment of theatre to reenact stories of violence and trauma by which you can then interpret the surrounding environment.”
6. This performance of Uncle Vanya unfolds across two days in a historic house – performed in real time
Anton Chekhov was a champion of realism, but this production from Melbourne’s La Mama Theatre extends that mission even further. It takes place over the course of about 30 hours at the Hans Heysen homestead in Hahndorf (which isn’t too dissimilar to the play’s original setting of a Russian country estate), with each scene playing at the time of day when it’s set in the play.
It’s only about two and a half hours of actual performance time, so you do get to sleep at some point. The audience is restricted to 40 per show, and some scenes are played twice because they happen in rooms on the homestead that won’t fit 40 people.
“Like Chekhov’s play, that’s absolutely concerned with the destruction of environment, this work feels really prescient,” Healy says. “In the moments between each act occurring, you have people from parks and wildlife who come and talk about the biodiversity in the area, the impact of climate change, the impact on the habitats of native animals.”
7. Watch a person get liposuction live – and buy a bar of soap made of human fat
OK, this is the one everybody is going to be talking about. A cosmetics retail outlet is going to pop up in CBD where you can purchase a bar of soap made from human fat. And yes, it’s safe to use. For every bar purchased, the proceeds will be donated to an organisation digging wells in a village in Malawi to provide clean drinking water (and they’ll also get a bar of soap).
The work, called ‘Schuldfabrik’, is by Dutch artist Julian Hetzel. As well as being a retail outlet, there’s also a performance element where you’ll get a back-of-house experience. And yes, you’ll get to see the soap being manufactured, including the liposuction process. Definitely not one for those made easily queasy.
“The concept that the artist is showcasing is how we can figuratively and literally take the physical excess of the first world from greed and consumption, and recycle it for good into the third world,” Healy says.
Looking for a festival little closer to home? Check out our 20 picks of the Sydney Festival program.