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Six events you can’t miss at Sydney Festival 2018

Richard Watts

From an avant-garde underwater performance to insights into masculine intimacy created by the National Theatre, the 2018 festival features artistic treats for the most discerning palate.
Six events you can’t miss at Sydney Festival 2018

Approved License Photo, Tree of Codes. Photo credit: Stephanie Berger.

Programming a major international arts festival is no easy task, says Sydney Festival Director Wesley Enoch. One’s own personal taste obviously informs the works selected, as does the availability of artists – but so too does one’s knowledge of Sydney and its personality, its tribes and passions, as well as the tenor of the times.

‘I was once given the advice that you only get to program one thing in a hundred that you get exposed to, so you have to expose yourself to as much as possible, whether that’s through researching on the internet, seeing shows live, or recommendations from folk,’ says Enoch.

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‘For me it’s really about responding to the zeitgeist, to use that overused word, in the sense that I believe that artists are connected to community and to big community ideas. They are responding to what’s around them, and so in programming the festival I’m listening to artists, and my own personal fascinations, and their fascinations, and how they come together.’

For his ‘difficult second album’, following his first Sydney Festival program in 2017, Enoch has programmed a dazzling array of events, ranging from family friendly favourites like Circus Oz – featured on the Circus City bill in Parramatta – through to high-art experiences in theatre, dance and more.

And then there’s a section of the program that’s just plain fun.

Sydney ‘wouldn’t be Sydney,’ without a hedonistic bent to the program, Enoch chuckles. He’s referring to the Meriton Festival Village in Hyde Park, where events include mime king Trygve Wakenshaw, boylesque champions Briefs, and the Irish variety show Riot, featuring drag queen and equal marriage advocate Panti Bliss. ‘It’s basically a fun response to Irish culture. One of the highlights for me is the piss-take of Riverdance that they do,’ Enoch laughs.

With such a wealth of events to choose from, selecting what to see at Sydney Festival can be a slow process. Here are ArtsHub’s tips to help you speed up the process.

AquaSonic

Photo credit: Charlottade Miranda.

It’s not just artists who are compelled to push the envelope: scientists and explorers have long sought new challenges and frontiers. One such man was the late, legendary French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, the co-inventor of the aqua-lung (more commonly known by its contemporary acronym, SCUBA: self-contained underwater breathing apparatus).

It would be fascinating to know what Cousteau, who authored both the film and the book The Silent World, about his early diving experiences, might make of AquaSonic, in which Danish ensemble Between Music shatter the silence with an ethereal underwater performance.

The result of years of collaboration and inquiry involving deep-sea divers, instrument makers, cetacean experts and scientists, AquaSonic sees five performers play custom-made instruments underwater – they even sing, despite knowing that an ill-judged inhalation could lead to swallowing water and disrupting the performance with a coughing fit. The result is sure to be remarkable, memorable and extraordinary.

Barber Shop Chronicles

Photo credit: Dean Chalkley.

A warm celebration of male ritual and a timely exploration of masculinity and fatherhood, this skilfully written and compellingly performed play examines the significance of the barber shop in the lives of African men. More than just a place to get one’s hair cut, the barber’s is a place to socialise, to share, to debate and open up. As one of the characters in Inua Ellams’ play observes, African men don’t go to the pub: they go to the barber instead.

Direct from the National Theatre in London, where it was praised as ‘exuberant’ and ‘invigorating’ by The Guardian’s Michael Billington, Barber Shop Chronicles weaves together common threads in the lives of men in London and Lagos, Kampala and Johannesburg. Actors shift roles fluidly as conversations jump from politics and passion to the patriarchy, while music, dance and the flourishing of barber’s towels propel the story along.

‘This show has been a hit touring the UK, and it’s a great mix of song, dance and story,’ says Enoch. Not just a fresh new take on diaspora, but a richly rewarding production for those whose preferences lean towards the well-written play.  

Jurassic Plastic

Photo credit: Keizo Kioku

How to have a conversation about consumerism and the environment with your children without making it into a lecture? Take them along to Jurassic Plastic, a visually striking installation by Japanese artist Hiroshi Fuji constructed from thousands of discarded toys. Transforming trash into colourful sculptures and fantastic landscapes, Jurassic Plastic is also a place to play; it features hands-on workshops for children aged 6-12, while late-night workshops are oriented towards the young at heart.

The Town Hall Affair

Kate Valk in The Town Hall Affair. Photo credit: Zbigniew Bzymek.

In the early Seventies, US literary icon Normal Mailer and feminist author Germaine Greer participated in a fiery, now infamous stoush staged at New York’s Town Hall.  

‘They were part of a town hall meeting talking about the role of feminism, and there was a documentary made of it, and The Wooster Group – a fantastic experimental theatre group from New York – have reinvigorated that conversation to make this work,’ says Enoch.

‘In fact Germaine Greer is going to come out and watch herself performed on stage and give a keynote address about it as well, so that will be interesting, I think.’

Incorporating documentary clips from the 1971 film alongside actors playing the likes of Greer, Mailer and others, The Town Hall Affair introduces additional layers of text and footage, remixing debate and counter-argument to create a richly ambitious work. The New York Times described The Town Hall Affair as ‘juicy, visceral theatre’ and The Hollywood Reporter called it ‘audaciously clever and technically dazzling’. Sydney Festival audiences are clearly in for a treat.

Tree of Codes

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes.

Described by Enoch as ‘a really beautiful collaboration between three really high-profile artists, Wayne McGregor, Olafur Eliasson and Jamie xx,’ Tree of Codes blends McGregor’s contemporary ballet with Eliasson’s dazzling lighting and set, and a pulsating, virtuosic electronic score from Jamie xx, the British composer/producer/performer.

Recently seen at Melbourne Festival, where The Music praised its ‘wondrous, kaleidoscopic spectacle’ and ‘creative extravagance,’ the work creates new constellations from the dancers’ refracted, virtuosic lines on a set that grows, shifts and oscillates before your eyes. It’s a work fans of contemporary dance will not want to miss; expect passionate conversations afterwards in the Darling Harbour Theatre foyer.

About An Hour

Acrobat's It's Not for Everyone. Photo: Karen Donnelly.

Perfect for the time-poor audience member, this festival-within-the- festival at Carriageworks features a series of provocative, impactful contemporary works, each running for approximately 60 minutes.

‘With About An Hour, what it says on the can is what you get – a show that’s about an hour,’ says Enoch.

‘It’s one of the lowest [priced] tickets that we offer, so it’s about $40, and it means you can see some amazing companies like Ontroerend Goed from Belgium and … the fantastic Acrobat, who are an Albury-Wodonga based circus company, who we don’t see much in Australia because they’re very avant-garde.’

Other works featured in About An Hour include the meta-theatrical satire Wild Bore, in which three provocative performers return fire at their critics; the filthily funny one-woman show Fleabag, which inspired the TV series of the same name, and from Western Sydney, the intimate, powerful and judiciously crafted political work, Tribunal.

‘With About An Hour we’re saying, “Come along and be part of Sydney Festival – take a risk,”’ Enoch says. ‘That’s what the festival is all about. Push yourself a little bit further, expand your horizons – you might feel uncomfortable at times but that’s what a festival is.’

Sydney Festival
6-28 January 2018
www.sydneyfestival.org.au 

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the board of literary journal Going Down Swinging and on the Committee of Management for La Mama Theatre. He is a former member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel, a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts

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