This year’s Sydney Festival sees too many artists timidly dancing around the implications of their own ideas. By Cassie Tongue.

Timidity sees majority of Sydney Festival artists fail to get their point across

A still from a recording of a performer singing into a microphone.
A scene from Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.
Credit: Wendell Teodoro

It’s summer in Sydney – bright sun, sudden rain, a thick humid soup of air settled around our throats – and in the month of new beginnings, we try to open up the guts of the city and make art in it. It’s Sydney Festival season.

City festivals are opportunities to interact with a place in new ways and to forge new legacies. The world comes to Sydney; Sydney offers its best face to the world. We may, if we’re lucky, make new meanings on old bones and forge connections between viewing, interacting and experiencing. This year’s festival, curated by artistic director Olivia Ansell, feels buried in an identity crisis – or maybe it’s just revealing that crisis to us in a way we can see, feel and name. 

Consider The Thirsty Mile, Sydney Festival’s rebrand of the Walsh Bay arts precinct, where the in-house companies – including Sydney Theatre Company, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Bell Shakespeare and Australian Theatre for Young People – are hosting festival shows, and which features the pop-up Moonshine Bar. The bar was sparsely populated each time I dropped in to try to experience that elusive festival vibe – apart from the enormous, neon-coloured and snakelike Hi-Vis, a 46-metre installation by British sculptor Michael Shaw that wraps around wharf pylons that gently glows and breathes. It feels garish, misplaced, like the bar itself. Trying hard to create a scene. 

Even the name feels too flippant, almost an unintentional joke. It’s a reference to the wharf’s reputation as The Hungry Mile, where the day-labour system forced workers in Depression-era Sydney to trawl the wharves looking for work – or, as memorialised in the Ernest Antony poem of the same name, to “beg the right to slave for bread from Sydney’s lords of gold”. Now, on this significant site in the fight for trade union reform, festival-goers can, in a cost-of-living crisis, pay $13 for bread and hummus. The cheese and charcuterie board will set you back $28. We’re still hungry.

Maybe Send for Nellie comes closer to honouring the history of the space that now serves as the de facto home for this year’s festival. Alana Valentine’s cabaret, nestled into Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf Theatres, is a love letter to the almost-faded star of Nellie Small, a 1930s singer and cabaret artist. Black, queer and gender nonconforming, Small’s charisma and vocal talents were apparently of such renown that if a show was flopping, the cry “send for Nellie” would ring out. She was the ultimate crowd-pleaser, sure to turn a variety night’s fortunes around.

Valentine’s show – which stars Elenoa Rokobaro, one of the great voices in Australian musical theatre – doesn’t quite conjure the secret-weapon element of Nellie’s talent. It fumbles its story in structure and dramaturgy, lingering on historical facts that feel like box-ticking rather than narrative. Liesel Badorrek’s direction strains to maintain momentum whenever anything happens that isn’t just Rokobaro singing.

There’s a kernel here of something that’s striving to be set free, agitating public consciousness with uncomfortable truths. It reminds us that, even at the height of her fame, Nellie was forbidden entry into clubs and post offices because of her race. It glances at, and pushes down, its anger. It’s a seance that can’t quite raise a ghost, but if it could, well, then the workers of The Hungry Mile and the city’s marginalised community members might begin to feel avenged. To do that, the work would need to dig deeper, to extrapolate its ideas further and let us experience the feelings that inspired it, so we might take them back into the world with us.

Across the festival, it feels like we are too politely restrained. Smashed: The Nightcap, a cabaret night set in the same Wharf Theatres venue, should play as the future Nellie Small could only dream of: camp and queerness embraced, drag and trans performers celebrated, subversive performance by talented players given the space to thrive. Host Victoria Falconer works the crowd into a loose, warm and open-hearted state – but every act, for all its quality, is hampered by the programming and framework that binds them all together. This ribald cabaret starts before the sun goes down and is over before it’s barely dark. Should cabaret ever be so polite? Was Nellie Small, in her day, ever this polite? What does it say about a city that it asks its outsider art to keep the noise down and not embrace the dark? Falconer’s script references speak-easies, art as resistance and defiance, but here the art is packaged.

The resistance, if you’re looking for it, lingers at the edges: you can see it in the audience members who show up to the Roslyn Packer Theatre for Belgian company Ontroerend Goed’s Are we not drawn onward to new erA in keffiyehs in solidarity with the actors who, in the production of The Seagull hosted in that venue in 2023, came under fire for doing the same in a curtain call. You can feel it at Encantado, where Brazilian artists from Lia Rodrigues Companhia de Danças summon nature spirits dancing through a patchwork of 140 colourful blankets to show what happens when those spirits run into the human-led destruction of the natural world, and you feel the wildness of scale: Encantado invites us to shuck off safe distances and really feel.

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, a co-production between the National Theatre of Parramatta and the Javaad Alipoor Company, is the bridge between these resistances and the neater packages at the centre of the festival. With a knowing, wry and instantly likeable demeanour, Alipoor (who directs and also co-wrote the show with Chris Thorpe) uses the unsolved murder of Iranian pop superstar Fereydoun Farrokhzad to stress-test the narratives we deem “so important right now”, to push past the devices, feints and half-developed ideas to discover something real. We log on to the Sydney Opera House wi-fi and descend into Wikipedia rabbit holes. We consider what’s lost when Farrokhzad is described as the “Iranian Tom Jones”. We see how true-crime podcasts flatten narratives. We even, in brief and chillingly accurate glances, see the play Things Hidden could have been: one that collapsed complex ideas about imperialism, racism and colonialism into a simplified story designed for white audiences.

In a festival of shows too timid to follow their ideas and make their points, it was a relief to watch Things Hidden push through rules of form and style and go altogether too far: the 90-minute piece builds into an overwhelm of commentary, documentary, Google searches, music (by Me-Lee Hay, with additional music by Raam Emami), interviews, sourced footage and monologue. There is nothing neat and tidy about storytelling. There are no simple truths. Honouring history is complicated and difficult and when you’re merely flippant, you lose essential meaning. What a pleasure to see a show explicitly name and extrapolate its ideas. What a pleasure to see art hungry to express itself. What a shame the majority of the festival feels worlds behind.

The Sydney Festival continues until January 28.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 24, 2024 as "Worlds behind".

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