Travelling to the Adelaide Festival this year was a heightened experience. After the theatre of pandemic security – applying for border permits, queueing for clearance in the airport – you arrive in a city that seems, to Melbourne eyes, oddly prelapsarian. Maskless people innocently crowd in bars and on the streets as if there were no such thing as Covid-19.
Arts festivals are odd events at the best of times. They are live versions of a choose-your-own adventure narrative, wherein the vagaries of individual decision indelibly colour any experience. When this choice is circumscribed – for example, when you fly in for the opening weekend – you can’t help but be keenly aware of what you’re not seeing.
This year’s Adelaide Festival, the fifth from artistic directors Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy, has, like every other event on the arts calendar, been affected by the virus. The few international headliners are being livestreamed into theatres, and mostly the programming is resolutely local. Which isn’t a bad thing – South Australia boasts some strong local talent.
The festival’s 2021 program features several events I would have liked to have seen, had the timing been right. Coming up over the next week are, among others, Sydney Dance Company’s Impermanence; Michael Tippett’s oratorio A Child of our Time; and a livestreamed performance – to Adelaide and Mount Gambier – of Simon Stone’s version of Medea, performed by Ivo van Hove’s Internationaal Theater Amsterdam.
But with limited time, I settled for the opening weekend headliners – two shows directed by Armfield – and a performance from disability arts company Restless Dance Theatre. As a sampling of what was on offer, they ran the gamut from dull to delightful.
Along with The Tempest and Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most beguiling comedies. It was written in 1596, three years after London theatres were first shut down by plague in a series of rolling closures that continued through the early 1600s. Five centuries later, when social structures are again destabilised by the levelling effects of invisible pestilence, it’s not hard to see the charm of a magical comedy in which the perils of the unhuman world are righted to human order.
Benjamin Britten turned it into an opera in 1960, with Peter Pears drawing the libretto entirely from Shakespeare’s text. Armfield is internationally known as a Britten specialist, with several celebrated productions under his belt, but as I glumly watched this ponderous adaptation at the Festival Theatre, I couldn’t help but wonder why he didn’t simply direct Shakespeare’s original play.
It seems a mistake to wrestle Shakespeare’s sparkling fantasy into the hieratic rhythms of opera. This three-hour work sucks the comedy out of the action, weighing it down with endless recitative. There are only a few moments – the lovers’ reunion, and the fairy choruses, sung by boy sopranos – when the music releases into lyric flight.
The set, surrounded by abstract translucent flats that symbolise the Forest of Arden, is dominated by a giant green plastic awning that supposedly represents the subterranean kingdom of sleep. The effect is curiously static – the sheet lacks the ripple and play of fabric, which may have given it some life, and I followed it with a fascinated eye as it moved hypnotically up and down between the flies and the stage floor throughout the show. The sheet’s presence restricted the lighting from above, which meant a heavy reliance on a bank of side lights, a wash and an occasional spot. This definitely limited the production’s potential magic.
The opera is certainly beautifully sung, with standout performances from Hermia (Sally-Anne Russell) and Oberon (Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen), but the production seldom escapes a sense of heaviness. Puck’s role is spoken, and here is played by Indigenous actor Mark Coles Smith in antic mode. As Theseus, Teddy Tahu Rhodes – his role completely excised from the first act – turns up to play the benign patriarch at the end.
The Mechanicals lose almost all their comedy in the earlier scenes, finally hitting their pace when form at last meets meaning in the performance of their play; but despite this, Warwick Fyfe as Bottom effectively steals the show. One of the few moments of transformational magic is the scene where an enchanted Titania falls in love with the ass-headed Bottom. But for the most part, this is a Dream with the magic leached out of it.
Armfield also directs A German Life, Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of 235 pages of transcribed interviews with Brunhilde Pomsel, who during World War II was a secretary and stenographer to Joseph Goebbels in the Nazi Ministry for Propaganda. This chamber production has the finesse that A Midsummer Night’s Dream often lacks, and features a pitch-perfect solo performance from Robyn Nevin, among the most accomplished I’ve seen from this formidable actor.
The play is drawn from an Austrian documentary, A German Life (2016), shot when Pomsel was 102. It’s an uncomfortable portrayal of complicity that focuses on the self-reported life of a very ordinary woman who lived through some extraordinary times. “Everything that’s beautiful is also tainted,” says Pomsel in the documentary. “Nothing is black and white. There’s always a bit of grey in everything.”
A German Life explores those grey areas. Pomsel flourished under the Nazi regime – a “beautiful time”, as she recalls it – and, because she was doing well, ignored what was happening around her.
Dale Ferguson’s set emphasises its own artifice – we see a naturalistic room in an aged-care home, with a hospital bed, chair and white-curtained windows, presented as a two-sided box in the empty darkness of the stage. To the left is cellist Catherine Finnis, who plays a Bach cello suite as the audience gathers. Then Nevin enters through the darkness, the lighting makes her seem somehow spectral: a ghost from the past, entering the present of the stage.
As when we witness anyone denying obvious complicity, A German Life is disquieting to watch, and in Nevin’s fine rendering has a touch of the obscene. One can’t but recall Primo Levi: “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” The Holocaust footage projected on the walls behind Nevin added to the obscenity: there was something gratuitous about it – an underlining of realities that we know all too well – that somehow pushed it into the past, however applicable this play might be to the present.
After that, it was a relief to walk through the noisy families and arcade games at Kingpin Norwood, a tenpin bowling alley that’s the venue for Restless Dance Theatre’s Guttered. This company, one of Adelaide’s many small treasures, has a mission to create “unexpectedly real dance theatre … that is collaboratively devised, inclusive and informed by disability”. And this, under the direction of Michelle Ryan, is exactly what they do.
Guttered is performed on the bowling lanes at the back, with the ambient noise of the venue an enlivening part of the soundtrack. Each audience member is greeted individually and given a card and pencil that asks – in my case anyway – to score what kind of risk-taker we are – “no, I play safe” to “YES! Deal with it”. Then we’re directed to the stools and chairs around the bowling lane, as if we’re attending a small party.
To the accompaniment of a driving electrobeat soundscape by Jason Sweeney, the dancers inventively explore notions of competition, love, conflict and risk: in particular, how much do we hinder people by minimising the risks they take in the name of “helping” them? The dance, lit masterfully by Geoff Cobham, takes place on the lanes, and includes some moving sequences, such as a love duet and a solo dance featuring an animated bowling ball that became a beautiful meditation on solitude and failure. Animated projections on the wall and even the pin-setting machine itself are also part of the choreography.
Company members call up audience members at the front to have a bowl or invite us to listen closely to an illuminated bowling bag, inside which we can hear a collage of whispering voices. In one delirious moment, a shower of popcorn tumbled over us.
The sense of delight was contagious. At the end of the show, audience members joined in to have a bowl. No one hit a strike, but everyone applauded anyway. In this ordinary suburban bowling alley, I found the collective magic I was looking for. Most of all, I suddenly felt I was at a festival – that sudden jolt of raw energy that feels like a celebration of life itself.
Adelaide Festival closes on March 14.
VISUAL ART Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until June 14
VISUAL ART Antonia Sellbach: To Build and Dismantle
Nicholas Thompson Gallery, Melbourne, until March 27
SCULPTURE Sculpture By the Sea: Cottesloe
Cottesloe Beach, Perth, until March 22
THEATRE Triple X
Queensland Theatre, Brisbane, until April 1
INSTALLATION Yayoi Kusama:Narcissus Garden
Museum of Sydney, until April 18
King Rodney Park/Iyamai-itpina, Adelaide, until March 8
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 6, 2021 as "Hunting for delight".
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