Theatre

Although Covid-19 restrictions enforce a lack of spontaneity, this year’s Sydney Festival feels like spiritual healing. By Cassie Tongue.

Sydney Festival

Jonny Hawkins in Maureen: Harbinger of Death.
Credit: Yaya Stempler

In other years, Sydney Festival felt as if it spilled a trail of art as it wove through the city. Seeing a show in the Festival Village meant food trucks and overpriced drinks and lines winding out from the Spiegeltent: sitting in the sun with friends or family or even just a good book while bonus free performances – comedy, song, dance – took place on an open-air stage.

You leave a show in a rush to get to the next, because you’re not counting venues or restricting movement. On the way, you pass musicians performing in the twilight or detour through an interactive art installation. You’re always so close to performance that you can almost reach out and touch it. The nights are long and warm and often lovely. There is a sense of being at the heart of things.

This year, Sydney Festival is an exercise in silos and strategy. For safety reasons, you can’t just float from a show to a bar to another show to a restaurant to a cafe to a late-night revue. You cannot linger. You must be wearing a mask; you must sign in to venues and stay 1.5 metres apart from the next guest as you queue for the box office or a beer. To avoid crowds, we leave venues quickly, without looking for friends or acquaintances in the neat lines of exiting patrons. This year, the Sydney Festival experience is something more intentional: we won’t just happen upon a transformative moment. We must find and make our own magic.

In 2021, Sydney Festival’s theatre offerings are Australian-made by necessity, but it’s a pleasure to have the focus placed on artists from home. We have all been struggling through the pandemic, and to share this slow return to an active performance culture with artists who live and work alongside us helps the festival feel like a community. So far, the most nourishing and resonant stories on Sydney Festival stages have been the ones that remind us of community and connection and love – that they can exist in tough times, and can be found in your life in thousands of different ways.

Consider Sunshine Super Girl, Andrea James’s thoughtful biographical play about one of our greatest athletes, Evonne Goolagong Cawley (played by Tuuli Narkle). With Sydney Town Hall transformed into a tennis court, we see that what propelled Evonne through a lonely and often fraught international tennis career were her connections: to Country, to family and to Roger Cawley, the love of her life.

The company, directed by James, embraces physical theatre and dance; it’s the language of all things tough to illustrate onstage – sports, love, liberation and loss. With a cast of five and generous doses of humour and warmth, Sunshine Super Girl is a play that could travel the country several times over, take up residence in schools and create new moments of connections for years. Through Evonne, we can find reflections of ourselves.

In Queen Fatima, a new play by rising star James Elazzi, we’re shown that we can find contentment, acceptance and happiness through the self first, and then through the world around us – our family and friends. Fatima (Kristelle Zibara) has been raised in a loving Lebanese family, and while there’s pressure from her parents to marry and have children – her boyfriend, Karim (Rahel Romahn), keeps her a secret from his parents, who will never accept as his wife the plus-size daughter of a man’oushe baker – Fatima loves herself with a ferocity that’s admirable and pure. To show the rest of the world that she’s “blessed”, and with her best friend, the 74-year-old outcast Gada (Fayssal Bazzi), as her support network, she enters the cut-throat Queen Lebanon Australia competition.

Elazzi marries comedy with heart, and the laughs come quickly and easily, especially when the Britney-obsessed Fatima channels her feelings through the songs of her hero. Elazzi examines the nature of marriages and shared dreams; he builds a strong family bond that – even when challenged by trouble at the bakery – doesn’t break. And it offers a way forward for the audience, with gentle lessons about self-love and about loving those who love you in return. There’s nothing like laughter to form an instant community within a theatre audience; there’s nothing like chuckling in the dark with strangers to make you feel alive again.

Except, perhaps, for the shared relief of tears. The Rise and Fall of Saint George – a love letter to the queer community set to music by Paul Mac, with lyrics by Lachlan Philpott – gives its audience space to process the trauma of the postal vote for marriage equality and the public hate that flooded the nation from political figures and members of the public. Part song cycle, part conversation, all exaltation, the open-air performance charts the creation and destruction of a mural that fashioned the late pop icon George Michael into a saint with blessed bottle of amyl nitrate, a joint and a rainbow halo.

The show is all about feeling. The mural was painted on Mac’s home, where he lives with friend and collaborator Jonny Seymour – the pair also perform as Stereogamous, a band that makes music, parties and remixes – and they had commissioned the mural as a tribute to the singer, whom they knew, but also as a gift to the community. The Rise and Fall of Saint George is an electro-pop elegy, a moment of mourning from a difficult time for the LGBTQIA+ community and a promise of liberation. On the headland, we cried together, and we cheered. If we hadn’t been in the middle of a pandemic, we would have sung, we would have danced.

The real jewel of the festival is Jonny Hawkins and Nell Ranney’s Maureen: Harbinger of Death. Hawkins plays Maureen – based on a real and wonderful elderly woman he used to know, but also an amalgam of all the older women he’s loved in his life. For 70 minutes we are in Maureen’s living room as she smokes cigarettes, offers us (individually wrapped) biscuits, and rages – with glamorous composure – against the dying of the light.

Centring on this grande dame of Kings Cross with stories to spare, this elegantly written and deceptively casual work is a celebration of older women – people we are quick to ignore, people who bear the brunt of society’s fixation on youth and beauty. But not here. Hawkins introduces the work and then slowly, lovingly, becomes Maureen before our eyes, guiding us into a new mood. Isabel Hudson’s set is a room swallowed by its own patterned wallpaper; it spills over onto the floor, on Maureen’s chair; she even wears it like a skirt. She has become part of the furniture of her own home. In 2021, after months of isolation in our living rooms, it’s striking to see such a beautiful physical representation of how it feels to be so interior, to be rooted in place and yet expand outwards.

Maureen tells the stories of the friends she’s lost, rewrites the myth of Persephone to make it less traumatic, and cracks an abundance of jokes. She loves living in the Cross; she loves the gay people who surround her and the women she’s known who exist outside the married-with-children mainstream. And yet, slowly, we begin to get the sense that this may be Maureen’s last long chat with a visiting neighbour. It’s a tension that drives the character and elevates the work into something quite remarkable: Maureen is squarely at the intersection of brilliant life and rude, abrupt death, and this affords her clarity about what really matters – kindness, not politeness – a gift that she offers all of us while she can.

This short work, nestled into the Reginald, the tiny black-box theatre downstairs at the Seymour Centre, is a gift in itself; it helps this festival feel a little like spiritual healing.

After seeing Maureen, I started to think about the 2021 instalment of Sydney Festival in a different light. Maybe a solo experience is exactly what we need. Maybe after so long on our own, consuming stories on a screen, this is ideal: we work our way through shows on a highly individualised path, taking our own slow steps at our own individual speeds into the ritual of live, physical theatre. Now we can begin to re-emerge, blinking, into the light. 

The Sydney Festival closes this weekend.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 23, 2021 as "Emerging into the light".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Cassie Tongue is a theatre critic and writer living on unceded Gadigal land.