Covid-19 restrictions have forced this year’s Perth Festival to focus on local artists – and the result is a communal joy. By Patrick Marlborough.

Perth Festival

A scene from House, starring (from left) Isaac Diamond, Nicola Bartlett and Chanella Macri.
A scene from House, starring (from left) Isaac Diamond, Nicola Bartlett and Chanella Macri.
Credit: Daniel James Grant

After a year of woe for Australian arts – problems amplified in Western Australia, which relies heavily on tourism – Perth Festival artistic director Iain Grandage has navigated a snap Covid-19 lockdown that all but scuttled the Fringe World festival to land what would’ve once seemed impossible: a Western Australian arts festival entirely comprising local artists.

Last November, Grandage described his Perth Festival as “a love song to Perth”. Four months later, it plays more like a rebel ballad, raging against the year that was.

The 2020 festival was Grandage’s first as director. The first week was dedicated entirely to the work of First Nations peoples. Noongar voices are central again this year, with a particular emphasis on the traditional stories of Boorloo and its surroundings.

Billed as an “invitation to gather and spend learning time together”, Witness Stand, created by Madeleine Flynn, Tim Humphrey, Barry McGuire and Kylie Bracknell, invites audiences onto small grandstands along the banks of the Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River), where they are invited to consider their place within a vast ecosystem of communities, memories and stories.

Appreciating that vastness – and our fragility within it – offers a helpful way to appreciate this year’s festival. The pandemic has lent an urgency to everything: Perth Festival 2021 is energised by its own precariousness. This urgency has given the festival a DIY quality, in both mood and programming. With interstate and international artists unable to attend, the line-up is local. This led to a rapid equalising within Perth’s small but hierarchical arts community, elevating many artists for whom Perth Festival might have otherwise remained a pipedream.

There is a sense of community theatre in the festival this year – everything feels galvanised by a communal mood of support and effort.

I felt this while watching a Perth Festival commission, Jay Emmanuel’s Children of the Sea, a play about unaccompanied children heading to Australia by boat in search of asylum. Set on the creaking deck of a smuggler’s tub, buoyed by the sounds of waves, storms, seabirds and live musical accompaniment, Children of the Sea struck me as an invisible story made visible by circumstance.

The play had its limitations: weighted by plot rather than character, it suffered in its attempt to be universal and dramatic, when the specific and banal might have been more interesting and more humanising. It didn’t feel like a production that would typically make it into Perth Festival in any other year. But that, in its way, is exciting. Here were local artists at an amateur level given a large platform to tell their story with unbridled – and contagious – enthusiasm.

Performed by refugees at the Subiaco Arts Centre, just across the road from “the pink castle” that was once Julie Bishop’s office, there is a potent immediacy in witnessing the faces of those who have experienced our government’s callousness firsthand as they tell us their stories.

That immediacy carried over to Ian Sinclair’s Whale Fall. Presented by the Kabuki Drop, Whale Fall was in part inspired by West Australian author Rebecca Giggs’s imagistic writing on whales in her 2020 book, Fathoms. The play is set on the sinking deck of a beach house as it succumbs to an eroding coastline, lurching into a slow, inevitable decay, as an absent mother returns to find the child she abandoned 10 years earlier has come out as trans. Those sitting in the front row can literally rest their heels on the sand dunes, like giddy guests at a beach wedding turned sour.

A granular dissection of a broken family on the cusp of healing, acceptance or irrevocable fallout, Whale Fall’s depiction of transformation as both rebirth and death felt tailored to the festival’s own transitional moment. Steered by its performances, particularly from trans actor Ashton Braden, Whale Fall can at times be so intimate that the audience is made to feel like an intruder, as if you, too, are at a friend’s beach house, bumping into their mother as she steps out of the shower.

Whale Fall addresses a conversation that’s often reductive, abrasive or plain cruel in the public sphere. By grounding its characters in a compassionate naturalism, Whale Fall affirms trans identities without martyring them, shedding an honest and affecting light on the hardships of transitioning.

These shows at Perth Festival ask us to consider our community – whether it’s chosen, found or thrust upon us – and what it means to be both included and inclusive. How do we find our community, and how do we extend it to those without?

Barking Gecko’s House, written by Dan Giovannoni, asks children the same question, and answers it with spectacle. Set in the titular house as it flies around the globe to rescue the world’s “loneliest children”, House is a fantastic romp that’s one part Howl’s Moving Castle, one part Up, and two parts the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Through gags, nudges and winks, House asks us to consider our loneliness and that of others, and where that loneliness sits within our identity. This conversation is nestled in the house itself, a marvel of set design which wheezes and morphs like a living cabinet of curios. The kids loved it, as did I.

I had spent the previous afternoon at Fremantle Arts Centre’s A Forest of Hooks and Nails. An exhibition about and made by gallery technicians, A Forest of Hooks and Nails exposes the scaffolding of this year’s festival and the arts industry itself, looking at the hidden forces of process, labour and collaboration that go into making an event such as the Perth Festival.

As I stood in Rob Kettels’ Mineral Rites, I had a small epiphany about Perth as a liminal space. The work is an empty room, lit in dusky pinks and blues. It pulses with an ambient soundscape punctuated by the crunch of your footsteps as you tread upon the carpet of rock salt that is the work’s centrepiece. It encapsulates Perth’s own quiet in-betweenness and the possibilities it suggests. Perth’s very isolation, its stillness, its 11pm emptiness, make it an exciting canvas.

Last year was humbling, a reminder that we are tiny parts of a vast interwoven ecosystem. The 2021 Perth Festival is an assertion of the city’s small but vital presence. As the Derbarl Yerrigan flows from Boorloo to Walyalup and out past the quokkas on Wadjemup, the festival invites us to witness our place as Western Australians, groping sand to build castles. 


The Perth Festival continues until March 14.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 27, 2021 as "Song of the west".

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