Melbourne Festival: here we go ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Melbourne Festival: here we go

Launches have their conventions: they are the events where those interests, state and corporate, who invest lavishly in an event get to stand in the spotlight and be thanked. And the Melbourne Festival launch last night, at the sparkly Forum Theatre, was no exception. It gave the impression that the newly-monickered Melbourne Festival, stripped of its "international arts" component, was a whisker away from becoming the Foxtel Melbourne Festival. (Brett Sheehy did, after all, swing naming rights to the Adelaide Bank when he was artistic director of that city's festival.) But no doubt that would have been a step too far.

Even given the conventions, it seemed a long time before we got to the actual program. We heard from a high-powered bunch: Carrillo Gantner, now the hands-on president of the festival; Kim Williams, CEO of Foxtel; acting Victorian Premier, Peter Ryan; and Robert Doyle, Lord Mayor of the City of Melbourne. In between the expected platitudes about the rich place of The Arts in our society, each of them fulsomely thanked the Kulin Nation and their elders, which on its third repetition seemed decidedly odd: the usual formality is an acknowledgement at the beginning of proceedings. It suggested an unusual anxiety to get things right for that lefty crowd of arty types, mixed with a strange sense of corporate triumphalism. To be honest, I didn't know what to make of it; but I began rather to wonder what was in the program.


Perhaps, despite the incongruity, it's not surprising that the stated themes of the festival are rebellion and revolution. When Brett Sheehy ("card-carrying genius") was finally permitted on stage, he revealed a festival which is, as was heralded by the former speakers, one of the most international we've seen. It's not the fait accompli that hype would have - it's moot whether 2011's festival will be the mandatory drawcard for interstate visitors that earlier festivals have been. I suspect, a little sadly, that Sydney, with twice the budget and bling, might be stealing Melbourne's arty thunder. But given this, its music and visual arts programs, in particular, look very strong, and there are plenty of drawcards. The proof of the pudding is, as ever, in the eating, but on the face of it, I think this is Sheehy's best program so far.

The performance has the signature sprinkling of populist spectacle (not that there's anything wrong with that), punctuated by some genuinely interesting shows. What's missing, certainly in the theatre, is a strong sense sense of the unexpected or new: most of the names here will be recognisable to Australian festival regulars. Two international visitors caught my attention: the National Theatre of China with its Rhinoceros in Love, and a South African production of The Magic Flute, in Xhosa and English. Look out too for the Kronos Quartet's multimedia performance of Terry Riley's Sun Rings, although I'd be inclined to book their other performance, which features a series of Australian premieres, including Steve Reich's WTC 9/11. Other works have been seen elsewhere already: The Manganiyar Seduction was a hit at last year's Sydney Festival, and I saw the New York Theatre Workshop's exemplary Aftermath at the Perth Festival earlier this year.


Thomas Ostermeier's Hedda Gabler, here from the Schaubuhne Berlin, is a welcome Melbourne debut, especially for those, like me, who haven't yet seen his work. And British-based motiroti's Journeys of Love & More Love, an exploration of cultural hybridisation through narrative and tasting plates, looks like it might be another highlight. From Ireland is another backstage deconstruction of theatre, The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane. International dance has a strongly political edge: Sheehy is bringing back London-based Hofesh Shechter Company, with Political Mother, and introducing Indonesian company JeckoSDANCE with a Papuan rap performance, We Came from the East.

Most striking is the extremely strong local component. There are usual suspects such as Chunky Move, which is presenting its collaboration with Victorian Opera, Assembly. On the strength of a showing of the work-in-progress I saw last week, this will be a must-see. Back to Back, another festival regular, is premiering its Ganesh Versus the Third Reich with Malthouse Theatre, and Ilbijerri Theatre Company is reprising last year's successful exploration of bio-theatre, Jack Charles V. The Crown, with Foley, featuring Gary Foley playing Gary Foley. Better still, Sheehy has reached into the Melbourne dance culture, with new works from up-and-coming choreographer Byron Perry, Double Think, and BalletLab's anticipated Aviary. Also look out for David Chisholm's KURSK: An Oratorio, Requiem, set to poems by Russian Anzhelina Polonskaya.

There some plays worth noting. Adelaide's The Border Project is bringing interactive whodunit theatre with Half-Real, written by the presently ubiquitous Duncan Graham. Barry Dickins's Whiteley's Incredible Blue will premiere at fortyfivedownstairs, directed by Julian Meyrick. And Red Stitch is presenting readings of some remarkable texts by Maria Irene Fornes, Debbie Tucker Green, Suzan Lori-Parkes and Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman, in a series called Provocateur. These will be directed by Gary Abrahams and Adena Jacobs.

Check out the program for yourself here. And get ready for giant black demon babies.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

As a Sydneysider I am much more tempted to come to Melbourne for the rich offerings from local companies - what a great body of new work has been pulled together from them. The international offerings, however, evoked a sense of ennui to this festival goer. While wonderful, the Manganiyar Seduction must be onto its 3rd or 4th touring company, it seems like time Schaubuehne Berlin set up an antipodean outpost, and the Kronos Quartet... ummm, again?

David Williams said...

Hi Alison,

I'd agree with the previous commenter that the reason I'd attend is to see the local work, esp. BalletLab, Chunky Move and Back to Back. But if possible, I'd really like to see Political Mother again. It played in Sydney last year and was so extraordinary that I had to immediately see it again. Probably the most viscerally exciting work I've seen in the last decade.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, the local work is VERY exciting. And that's some recommendation for Political Mother! Moving right up my list...

CN said...

BTW Alison, Red Stitch have actually been in the Festival before. Kristy programmed The Night Season (dir. Ailsa Piper) back in 2005 if memory serves.

Chastity: I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?
Bianca: I think you can in Europe.

Search for Daily Deals said...

I'd agree with you guys, your thoughts that you would like to deliver for the readers is well done. Though you all had different ideas, but then it's great.

Casey Bennetto said...

I agree with Search for Daily Deals - incisive as usual.

Alison Croggon said...

Bloody spam. But because of you, Casey, I'll leave that one up. It's too funny.

Thanks CN. You are quite correct, it's not Red Stitch's MF debut. Amendment pronto!

4 Coffins said...

Spot-on commentary Alison, right down to the "card carrying" - what an odd launch.

Am I the only one who feels this program is a little staid, then? I couldn't agree more with your comment that we are missing something unexpected or new. Revolution + Rebellion? Perhaps an ironic title?? Certainly seemed so with the giant propagandic big screens brainwashing me.

I suffered exhaustion from being told things were "the best". What exactly is "the best"? I think Ostermeier will be embarrassed to read that he is a "directorial prodigy". And the production line of superlatives coming from Brett's mouth should have been recorded and used in the next Foxtel ad.

The whole thing reeked a bit of a festival that's trying to hide behind an idea of quality that has more to do with advertising than Art.

I really wanted Brett to break away halfway through and say "Listen, I'm not supposed to curate like this. This is against the rules. But I found this performer on a boat on the Mekong/Tokyo Disneyland dressed as Donald Duck/in a Secondhand bookshop in Hobart. They're just amazing. You're gonna love em. They'll change what you think about art."

I'm sure the pudding will surprise me, and even from talking to people afterwards my arms were beginning to uncross. But I'm disappointed - at first glance anyway. And to borrow a comment of a friend, I'm not sure there's much there to convince those not interested in art to participate in the festival.

Someone told me during the night that in Brett's first festival he organised buses for people to come in to the city and experience the festival. Where has that passion gone?

the scorpion said...

perhaps it's gone where the purple light show went...

Alison Croggon said...

Hi 4Coffins - the launch was a bit of an oddity, but to be fair, I've never been at a launch which wasn't rich with superlatives. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is the focus on home-grown talent as a major drawcard: it may be that necessity is the mother of invention, but that's a mighty shift. Melbourne certainly has the goods.

jeff busby said...

Yes Alison Sydney has the cash to buy the art it has failed to produce and meanwhile here the key shows of the home grown talent are self presenting while the fest and its sponsors glow with minimal expenditure. Ahh smoke and mirrors......

the scorpion said...

The art sydney has failed to produce seems a little harsh. The city has far better art than it has, well, city, and lets face it, much of the theatre at least coming out of Sydney is absolutely ricocheting out of the box. This nonsense that Sydney doesn't make good work is increasingly that, nonsense. For the facts are pretty simple, Sydney do have top artists and great art. Enough of this silly Melbourne vs Sydney thing. I would point for a start to Griffin + Belvoir + STC making a range of work in many cases far superior to anything the MTC + Malthouse could fathom creating.

But let me not begin to dissemble the national joke that is the World Famous Heritage Listed Amazing And Brilliant And Absolutely Stupendously Stupendous Sydney Opera House!!!

For a city with such a fine geography and climate, that people do choose to sit in darkened rooms and take in some art, is a credit to those people and that art. Neither happen unless there is something going on. The numbers speak for themselves, as do the artists and their work.

But your point about the old self presenting thing, I concur 100% and lovely isn't it? Just like the Fringe Festival really, but with a Major Sponsor that gives us the FOXTEL LIFE IS BETTER THAN NOT!!! Arts Festival, which lets face it folks, is actually really really cheap advertising for them.

I have one question, is that alcohol branded festival music venue happening again this year?

I suggest next year we could have the Penthouse Dance program, and the British American Tobacco Writers Series, and we could even have the Monsanto Childrens Play Area and if we're really lucky, we could have The Rupert Murdoch I Own Your Arse Visual Arts Program.

Hows about one day we get the Melbourne Festival? Now that would be a sponsorship coup I say.

jeff busby said...

Sydney has made a concerted effort to out spend Melbourne on arts of late including on commercial musicals and the Sydney Festival to which I was specifically referring. There is competition for arts events and the measurable economic benefits they bring. Art is bankable and the artists that make it must follow the support. I do agree, scorpion, that Sydney main stage theatre companies are setting the pace at present but this was not a Melbourne vs Sydney comment as much as one about how festivals appear to support local artists.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Jeff and Scorpion. I'm not especially interested in Sydney/Melbourne rivalry, but Jeff has a point. Nick Pickard wrote an interesting piece for The Drum recently looking at the heavy Sydney investment in musicals which might be pertinent here. The Sydney Festival has more than twice the budget of the Melbourne Festival.

I agree the Sydney mainstream has it all over Melbourne at present, if you compare the STC and the MTC; but you ignore co-productions and so on at your peril. There's a lot of interstate osmosis between companies, which makes this Sydney/ Melbourne thing often meaningless. Do you see everything in both cities? If not, how are you able to make categorical judgements? In the past few years, the real engine of the indie scene has been here, but once the results are buyable, they often head up north. Sydney has attracted a lot of Melbourne artists, from Simon Stone (deputy at Belvoir) to Sam Strong (AD at Griffin), right down to a lot of our actors, designers etc. I wonder how long that is sustainable for us?

And it's fair to say that the Melbourne Festival has benefited from a lot of previous investment in local companies.

Alison Croggon said...

Weird - my live link didn't work. Trying again for Nick Pickard's Drum piece:

www.abc.net.au/unleashed/2791672.html

Anonymous said...

Scorpion,
Would you prefer no corporate support of the Festival and it to become even smaller? I bet you'd be the first to complain if they were all to pull their support.

Local companies receive great exposure being in an international Festival and greater exposure to audiences who may not usually take a punt on their work. their choice reallly...

the scorpion said...

That presumes the festival would get smaller without their support. Perhaps if we took away your job the festival could afford a small indie show? That I might prefer.

It also presumes that I would complain if they did pull their support. Which may or may not be the case. There is a difference between a logo on the back of the program or some small branding exercise which is usually very well managed given the way it takes the form of some subtle hat tipping. But the naming of a festival after some massive soulless enterprise makes me a bit sick.

So remember folks, this is FOXTELS FESTIVAL!!!

Not it's not, it's Melbournes. We damage our brand, that of our festival and of our city by engaging with such crap.

On your second point, this is just like the argument that Albert Park gains great exposure by being the site of the Formula One Grand Prix.

The Formula One corporation get nothing from it on the other hand.

Go Foxtel. Sit at home, watch pay tv, no need to go out and support local artists.

Alison Croggon said...

Scorpion, Foxtel doesn't have naming rights on the Melbourne Festival, although it is a major sponsor. And given that government funding worldwide is heading downwards (look at Holland) where do you suggest the money for these kinds of events comes from? Because you can be sure they wouldn't happen without some kind of subsidy.

Anonymous said...

Looking at the annual report, it is a small budget for a festival... wonder how much of that income is sponsorship dollar? This program does seem a loss less substantial than past festivals. Almost half the content of one of Kristy Edmunds programs. I personally don't mind a sponsor logo on the back or on the guide's cover - or naming a bar if it means more art works make it in to the festival. Doesn't really change the experience once the curtain goes up for me. Don't follow "if we took your job away" comment Scorpion - less teachers for more art?

Anonymous said...

and the entry price to the "Becks Beer" event at the Forum was sweet - $15 a ticket. No becks this year and th tikets are $45. Bummer

Alison Croggon said...

Just for comparison: taken from a 2006 Age report:

The Melbourne International Arts Festival receives $5.5 million from the State Government and $400,000 from the City of Melbourne each year.

The festival's annual turnover is $8 million-$9 million, with the remainder of its budget comprising sponsorship, donations, money from foreign governments, and box-office takings of about $1 million a year.

Anonymous said...

Imagine if we took the opportunity away from Intralot and Tattersalls to run/profit from gaming and ran those lotto events as they do in the UK where the cash gets spent on things such as arts and culture.

the scorpion said...

Happened to browse the program, and have to say it is actually pretty bloody good! There's some fantastic stuff in there, the Hofesh Schechter work and the other dance pieces will definitely need a look. A great program I reckon. Me very excited.

The other thing that struck me about reading the program was the opening page, usually the preserve of talking heads that take the bill - the messages from the premier, minister, director blah blah... in this program they're spread out over a number of sidebars on pages and the focus is most definitely on the work.

An exciting exciting festival approaches.