Festival

This year’s Brisbane Festival focuses on work that connects people across cultures and generations. By Yen-Rong Wong.

Brisbane Festival

Singer-songwriter Montaigne and the cast of David Morton’s Holding Achilles.
Singer-songwriter Montaigne and the cast of David Morton’s Holding Achilles.
Credit: Dean Hanson

This year’s Brisbane Festival launched under an uncharacteristically rainy September sky. But the inclement weather failed to dull the festival’s bright spirit and vibrant programming.

The Art Boat, featuring Lindy Lee’s installation The Spheres, leaves from the Maritime Green on the Northshore. Lee’s piece is inspired by Pythagoras’s “Music of the Spheres” – the idea that the vibrations of celestial bodies produce sound as they move through the sky. Accompanied by a composition by Lawrence English, a soundscape by Yuggera and Turrbal man Shannon Ruska, lighting design by Daniel Anderzipf and performances by musical acts that change daily, the boat takes passengers up and down the Brisbane River while they explore the installation.

At the beginning of the journey, Ruska introduces the audience to the First Nations peoples who have links to the Brisbane River. He explains that even though they have different names for the Country they live on, they are – and we are – united across generations by the Sky Country – the one thing that has remained the same for thousands of years.

This idea of connecting across generations and belief systems continues in Camerata & Lior: Compassion, a collaboration between Australian singer-songwriter Lior and Queensland chamber orchestra Camerata. They perform newly arranged versions of some of Lior’s most popular songs, including “This Old Love” and “Daniel”, as well as Compassion, a symphony for tenor and chamber orchestra.

A song cycle by Nigel Westlake and Lior, Compassion draws its inspiration from ancient Hebrew and Arabic texts. The exploration of common themes within Judaism and Islam is especially poignant, given the fractured state of the world and the ever-escalating conflict between Israel and occupied Palestine. In this intimate rendering, Lior sings with a depth of understanding that brings these songs to life. Percussionist Nozomi Omote is particularly impressive, moving nimbly across countless instruments during the course of the piece.

The Orava Quartet – whose members are part of Camerata – played a program of dances that appeal to a broad audience in the South Bank Piazza. In this open-air space, classical music combined with the background noise of the general public and an unexpected accompaniment by a gregarious crow.

The quartet premiered a new work by Elena Kats-Chernin, “For Theodora”, which was commissioned by Katrina Samios in memory of her mother. Based on a Greek folk song, the work paints a picture of four generations of women. This song weaves its way through all four movements, with tempo and melodic changes providing an insight into each woman. Music also plays a large role in Fourteen, the stage adaptation of Shannon Molloy’s debut memoir. It nostalgically invokes the ’90s with a classic soundtrack featuring hits from Shania Twain, S Club 7 and more. Directed by Nick Skubij and adapted by Molloy in association with shake & stir theatre co, the play follows a 14-year-old Shannon (Conor Leach) as he battles homophobia in Yeppoon, a regional Queensland town.

Josh McIntosh’s set transforms from an all-boys’ school to a shopping centre and a community hall, and Leach’s brilliant performance balances confidence and vulnerability as he navigates small country town living with his friends, Morgan (Amy Ingram) and Nicole (Helen Cassidy). Put together by sound designer Guy Webster, the soundtrack is the occasion for some exuberant dance numbers, bright spots in a school experience full of bullying.

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Fourteen is deft and unflinching as it explores the complexities inherent in coming to terms with sexuality and sexual orientation in an environment of toxic masculinity, issues that are still pertinent. Shannon’s first crush on Tom (Mitchell Bourke) is marred by Tom’s internalised homophobia, which escalates into sexual assault and, eventually, Shannon’s attempted suicide.

However, Shannon’s support network means he still manages to co-ordinate a community fashion show, before securing an international student exchange that takes him to Connecticut. From here, things get better for him – the play opens and closes at his wedding, with S Club 7’s “Don’t Stop, Never Give Up” a musical and thematic strain through the play.

Brisbane Festival’s investment in productions that cross disciplines is exemplified in Holding Achilles, a collaboration between Dead Puppet Society, a visual theatre company that works primarily with handmade puppets, and physical theatre company Legs On The Wall. David Morton’s queer interpretation of the relationship between Achilles (Stephen Madsen) and Patroclus (Karl Richmond) reimagines Homer’s classic The Iliad.

Singer-songwriter Montaigne’s performance as Thetis brings an additional richness to the story, a different way of providing exposition to a tale that has been retold countless times. The usual suspects – Odysseus (John Batchelor), Agamemnon (Lauren Jackson) and Peleus (Thomas Larkin) – are present but Madsen and Richmond steal the show.

Though the tale ends in tragedy, the production is lighthearted. Patroclus’s wit and kindness clash with Achilles’ heroic aspirations, but they fight and trade sarcastic barbs in the way only teenage boys can, endearing themselves not only to each other but also to the audience. Ellen Bailey is vibrant and bombastic as Ajax, but makes a gentle puppeteer for the adorable and intricately designed baby bear that the boys meet in the glade of Chiron the centaur.

Unfortunately, the second act could not proceed due to a performer’s injury, but the first act still showcased this unique collaboration. Heracles the bear is a puppet brought to life by five people, one for the head and one for each leg; Nic Prior performs on digitigrade stilts as Chiron; and a fire puppet’s flames changed colours to reflect the drama of Chiron’s narration of the circumstances around Helen of Troy’s marriage.

Most impressively, a four-metre replica of Achilles’ spear, rigged by David Jackson and Byron Cleasby, hangs from the ceiling – the centrepiece of a beautiful aerial scene in which Patroclus saves Achilles after the latter flings himself off a cliff. Movement director Joshua Thomson’s choreography and the physicality of Madsen’s and Richmond’s performances are an example of how strength can come in many forms – not only those that glorify war and brutality.

Anna Yen’s Slow Boat – inspired by her father’s journey to Australia – follows the story of six Chinese indentured labourers who are performing a show to celebrate Victory in the Pacific at Brisbane’s Bulimba dockyards. The play follows Gong Saang (Julian Wong), Waih Jai (Ming Yang Lim), Dak Sing (Nicholas Ng), Ah Faat (Egan Sun-Bin) and Luhng Goh (Silvan Rus) throughout World War II. Directed by Ian Lawson, Slow Boat reimagines the Western trope of a play within a play by introducing Cantonese opera, vaudeville, circus and martial arts. It’s delightfully and unapologetically multilingual.

Gong Saang is the narrator, negotiating interactions with the audience while also wrangling his cast-mates. The play touches on the complexities of the Chinese civil war, class warfare, what people will do to survive when they are desperate, and the hospitality and racism they endured in Australia.

They also relate the hardships they endured on Nauru while working for the British Phosphate Commission. It is eerie to hear about the conditions they suffered knowing that, nearly 80 years later, refugees were still being mistreated inhumanely by an Australian government.

Again, it is the music – led by musical director, composer and erhu player Nicholas Ng and featuring Anna Kho, guzheng player Yuren Chen, and Chinese bamboo flute player Zi Wei Wang – that brings this play to life. The unique timbre of traditional Chinese instruments adds to the production’s authenticity. It was thrilling to witness the skill required to master these cornerstones of Chinese culture.

Slow Boat demonstrates that theatre – and art in general – can movingly reveal dark truths. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the Brisbane Festival opened under such inauspicious weather. Though the skies cleared slowly over the weekend, it was a reminder that in spite of war, racism, homophobia, colonialism and dispossession, art endures – and that artists will always find a way to reimagine their worlds.

The Brisbane Festival continues until September 24.

ARTS DIARY

FESTIVAL Festival of Dangerous Ideas

Carriageworks, Sydney, September 17-18

LITERATURE Write Around the Murray

Venues throughout Albury-Wodonga, September 14-18

BALLET Goldberg Variations

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, until September 24

CULTURE Imagine Seaside Carnival

De La Plage, Darwin, September 16-25

FESTIVAL Wonder

Home of the Arts, Gold Coast, September 16-25

LAST CHANCE

VISUAL ART 2022 Geelong Contemporary Art Prize

Geelong Gallery, until September 11

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 10, 2022 as "Crossing points".

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