Melbourne Festival: The TN preview ~ theatre notes

Friday, September 03, 2010

Melbourne Festival: The TN preview

This year's Melbourne Festival, Brett Sheehy's second, is a program that repays some attention. The more you look, the more exciting it gets: it may not seem especially spectacular at a cursory glance but, once you get down to brass tacks, there's nothing in the performing art program that I wouldn't at least be curious to see. And more than a few events that make me plain excited.

Sheehy is certainly ebullient about what's on offer for this year's festival. That's his job, of course, but he has a right to be pleased with himself. He's presenting a rich and diverse program, which offers a tempting meld of top quality international acts with some of our best local artists. There's a high percentage of local work - of the 908 artists on show, 658 are Australian.

"I feel fantastic," he says. "What a job - I love it. You'd have to be pretty miserable not to feel this way - you have a city here that adores its festival. It's the only city I've ever been anywhere where people have come up to me - even non-arts goers - say that the arts are a critical part of their city. It's only ever happened here."

Sheehy confesses frankly that it can be daunting for an outsider to enter Melbourne's complex and rich cultural networks. "The first year, I was just trying to get a feel for the landscape," he says. "I wasn't blind" (he refers to an Australian article attacking the festival as "unAustralian") - "It takes time, you have to feel your way, forge relationships, and so on. And this year I've got some of my favourite Australian artists in the festival."

My advice to anyone poring over the 2010 program is this: if you possibly can, go to everything. To my chagrin, there are at least two events, including David Chesworth's Richter/Meinhof-Opera, that, no matter what I did, I couldn't shoehorn into my schedule. But I know that not everyone can manage this, not least because I get review tickets (this time of year, I feel very lucky). So below the fold are my "don't miss" highlights.

I know he's not, strictly speaking, theatre, but: Bill Viola, Bill Viola, Bill Viola. (Did I say Bill Viola?) There are two video installations by this awesome contemporary artist/mystic on in the festival: Fire Women and Tristan's Ascension (image above) at St Carthage's Catholic Church in Parkville; and The Raft at ACMI. They're both FREE, so no excuses. Tattoo it on your hand.

Two big international theatre acts: Danish auteurs Hotel Pro Forma with their opera Tomorrow in a Year (image above). This is inspired by Darwin's perceptions of nature and time and is described as a "revolutionary electronic feast for the senses". Also, those who saw them on their first visit to Australia have been rapturous in their praise of this company. I missed that, so will be there this time.

The other is of course Robert Lepage's The Blue Dragon (top image). "This is pure theatrical magic," says Sheehy. "It's deeply romantic, intimate work that looks at the contradiction within contemporary China - the uber-capitalist society that is still, basically, a communist state." It looks ravishing and promises to be heartbreaking.

Like a good parent, Sheehy doesn't have favourites; but he is particularly warm about a couple of shows. Jack Charles V The Crown, a co-production between MIAF and Ilbijerrie Theatre Company, came about when Ilbijerri AD Rachel Maza approached Brett with Jack Charles's idea of telling his story. "It's one of the great Australian stories," he says. He's also very excited about Opening Night, by Toneelgrooep Amsterdam (image above), a theatrical version of John Cassavetes film in which director Ivo van Hove - "one of the great talents of our time" - brings film techniques into the theatre in fascinating and genuinely new ways.

I'm particularly intrigued by Stifters Dinge (Stifter's Things), a performance work by German "multimedia maverick" Heiner Goebbels that includes no performers (image above). "Nature butts up against pure technology," says Sheehy, "It's a unique experience - an installation, maybe, but it's a totally theatrical experience. It almost has a Gothic patina to it..."

Some strong dance too - the Michael Clark Company is out here with come, been and gone, a dance primarily based on the music of David Bowie and some of his key collaborators. Vertical Road, Akram Khan's investigation of angels - a symbol that occur in all cultures - is still being created. "I won't know what it is until I see it here," says Sheehy. "But I'm very excited by this one." Japanese multidisciplinary artist Hiroaki Umeda is bring out two highly technological pieces, Adapting for Distortion and Haptic, which look spectacular and fascinating.

On the writing front: I wouldn't miss Ranters' new show Intimacy, on at the Malthouse as their offering, which continues Adriano and Raimondo Cortese's exploration of the humble profundities of the human condition, or Daniel Keene's absurd Life Without Me, his MTC debut, which features an outstanding cast and, dare I say it, an outstanding text. The Beckett Trilogy, a condensed version of Beckett's novels Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable, is, says Sheehy, a "tour de force". And TN favourites Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith are doing the full extravaganza at Fortyfive Downstairs with Carnival of Mysteries. If you haven't seen their work before, get on down there.

I think I might have covered most of the theatre/performing arts program, which is not much good for those wanting highlights... and that's without looking at the music, and with only the briefest look at the visual arts. If you haven't already done so, you should check out the program yourself. It's enough to keep me busy for three weeks, anyway, and will of course all be covered here. All that remains is to hope it doesn't rain too much. See you all around our fair city, and perhaps we can argue about everything in the bar afterwards!

Coming up soon: TN preview of the Melbourne Fringe. Which is also looking shiny and super.

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