Brisbane Festival mightn’t get the same attention as Melbourne or Sydney’s annual arts events – or even Adelaide Festival under star directors Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy. It’s a relative newcomer to the festival scene; only in operation since 1996 and only an annual event since 2009. But the festival has gone from strength to strength since then and has carved out its own distinctive identity combining performance, innovative artistic experiences and a tonne of contemporary music. Because what else would you put in a festival all about Brisbane?
This year, director David Berthold has divided the festival into three separate ‘acts’ to help you navigate the program. Act one (Sep 8-16) has works exploring home, memory and gender, act two (Sep 17-23) is all about pitting the individual against the forces of nature and society, and act three (Sep 24-29) is for the party people, with a bold and celebratory vibe.
But what’s really exciting is that the festival has become a breeding ground for new works from some of the country’s most innovative artists, from both Queensland and further afield. This year includes eight world premieres.
We know the idea of going to Brisbane for an arts fix might still seem a bit strange to Sydneysiders, but here are all the reasons you should head north for spring.
1. Brisbane River is lighting up every night with a ten-minute light and laser show
Every year the festival closes with Riverfire, a huge display of fireworks down the Brisbane River that attracts around half a million people. But this year the river takes an even more central role, with River of Light – The Story of Maiwar, a ten-minute light, water and laser show just across the river from the festival village, Arcadia. It tells the Aboriginal story of the serpent that wove the river – called Maiwar in Turrbal language – that snakes through the middle of the city. It’s a collaboration between special effects company Oracle-Liquid and the Nunukul Yuggera Aboriginal Dance Company, and will be shown nightly at 6.30pm, 8pm and 9.30pm for the duration of the festival.
2. An entire house will be magically conjured up on stage – from nothing
Sydney audiences might remember performer and auteur Geoff Sobelle from his show The Object Lesson, which saw him conjure up worlds from hundreds of cardboard boxes scattered through Sydney Town Hall. This new show, Home, starts with a blank stage; over the next 90 minutes a house materialises in the space and is filled by a family of performers and audience members. Things start out firmly in the domestic realm before it all turns into a big house party.
3. The talented circus team behind Limbo are premiering a big new show
Local outfit Strut & Fret have been responsible for some of Australia’s biggest touring circus-burlesque-cabaret fusions, including Blanc de Blanc, Limbo and its offshoot Limbo Unhinged. They’ll be premiering Life – The Show in the Spiegeltent at Arcadia. There’s little information as to what to expect from this new show, but they’re promising “an adventure of hedonistic theatrical anarchy”. The performers include Dutch clown Goos Meeuwsen, who played a leading role in Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas show Love, and musician Blaise Garza, who has been performing with the Violent Femmes since 2004.
4. Boundary-pushing, provocative performers will assemble in a Theatre Republic
Since 2013, the festival has been setting up shop just north of the CBD at QUT Kelvin Grove’s Creative Industries Precinct, taking over La Boite Theatre and the University’s various performance spaces with independent companies and artists. The “Theatre Republic” is an essential part of the festival if you’re looking for an intimate, boldly entertaining but potentially challenging experience. This year there are 13 shows in the line-up including Melbourne-based drag cabaret Yummy, UK theatre-maker Rachel Mars’ music-driven Our Carnal Hearts, and two full weeks of sex clown Betty Grumble’s latest show Love and Anger.
5. Australia’s most acclaimed circus troupe will have a world premiere
If you’ve never seen a Circa show, consider it your patriotic duty to do so. The Brisbane-based circus troupe has become a massive deal on the international festival circuit thanks to their unique take on circus arts – emulated by plenty of companies since they broke through. They’re very much on the stripped back side of Cirque du Soleil, but with a physical virtuosity and artistic integrity that’s seen them attract rave reviews everywhere in the world. Their new show, En Masse, is particularly ambitious and takes place over two acts. The first is set to Schubert's Winterreise (performed by British tenor Rob Murray) and the second to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (performed by pianists Tamara Anna Cislowska and Michael Kieran Harvey).
6. You can see the award-winning show Biladurang performed in a hotel room
There are up-close-and-personal performances and then there’s Joel Bray’s dance-theatre work Biladurang. It premiered at Melbourne Fringe last year and picked up three awards including Best Performance. Bray is a Wiradjuri man, and this solo piece loosely echoes the story of the Biladurang – known in English as the platypus. As he and an audience of around 14 people find themselves trapped together in a hotel room, he starts to ask bigger questions about his identity. At some point he even takes a bath, so it’s a rather intimate portrait.
7. The best ‘Peter Grimes’ in the world will sing the role at QPAC
Another of Australia’s big artistic imports in recent decades is tenor Stuart Skelton, who’s performed in just about every major opera house in the world. He’ll be performing the title role in the festival's production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, performed with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and the Opera Queensland chorus. Critics have said that he’s the best singer for this role in the world.
8. Physical theatre company Legs on the Wall is collaborating with Ursula Yovich
Legs on the Wall is best known for its high-flying (often literally) theatre, which makes this piece, penned by Ursula Yovich, the perfect story for the company. It follows an Aboriginal kid from a small town who loses his best friend to suicide. But he soon becomes obsessed with a circus star known as the “Man With the Iron Neck”, whose most famous trick was to jump from bridges with a rope around his neck. Man With the Iron Neck features aerial performance and video design and is having its world premiere at the festival.
9. Ball Park Music, Eskimo Joe, Violent Soho, Jen Cloher and Tkay Maidza… all in one place
Given the city’s strong history with rock and contemporary music, it makes sense that the festival would embrace major bands and soloists. This year kicks off with a concert by Ball Park Music and San Cisco on the Riverstage and closes with a full-day concert featuring Violent Soho with Meg Mac, Methyl Ethel and Waax. You can also see Eskimo Joe reinventing their hits in concert with Camerata, Queensland’s Chamber Orchestra, and an intimate gig from Jen Cloher in the Spiegeltent. And Brisbane is temporarily converting its historic Tivoli Theatre for three in-the-round performances by Polish Club, Sarah Blasko and Gareth Liddiard.
Brisbane Festival is from September 8 to 29. See the full program at brisbanefestival.com.au.