Adelaide Festival 2019 in review: A season of spectacle

This year’s Adelaide Festival program delivered a cracking assortment of theatre, opera and dance. The Adelaide Review highlights the best of the 2019 season.

“So, what’s the best you’ve seen?” was a constant question over the first two weeks of March. So much to choose from in the 2019 Adelaide Festival. Day by day, night by night, the answer could well change.

To begin – Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Not just the flute, but the whole production by Barrie Kosky and Suzanne Andrade is magical. With animation by Paul Barritt, it is brave, tender and very funny. In this tribute to silent black and white film, the story is spelt out in large letters on the white wall that forms the backdrop, though colour is not missing. Human and animated characters appear together – heroine Pamina is pursued by wolfish dogs; Papageno, seeking love, has a black cat. The Queen of the Night is a huge spider, her head the only human part. The singing and the ASO’s playing under Hendrick Vestmann – glorious.

The Magic Flute (Photo: Tony Lewis)

Shakthidharan (aka Shakthi) is an Australian interdisciplinary artist of Sri Lankan heritage and Tamil ancestry. His debut play, Counting and Cracking, 10 years in the making, spans four generations, moving between Sydney in 2004 and Colombo in 1957, 1977 and 1983. Sixteen convincing actors play 50 parts, and there are three musicians.

The Sri Lankan crisis came in 1983 when the government banned Tamil, declaring Sinhala the only language. Civil war erupted, and in the play Rahda, the pregnant wife of Tamil Thirru, believing him dead, flees to Australia, where son Siddhartha is born. Calling himself Sid, at 21 he has problems working out his relationships between his Australianness and Sri Lankan heritage but is helped by his Yolngu girlfriend Lily from Arnhem Land who cheerfully says she has similar difficulties. The play ends joyfully, with the arrival of Thirru, who had been imprisoned, not killed.

The cast of Counting and Cracking (Photo: Brett Boardman / Belvoir St Theatre)
The cast of Counting and Cracking (Photo: Brett Boardman / Belvoir St Theatre)

Counting and Cracking was just one play taking identity as a theme, which also underlies Ursula Yovich’s powerful Man with the Iron Neck, about Aboriginal youth suicide. Yovich also plays, movingly, the central part of Rose, mother of twins Evelyn and Bear, a promising footballer. His best mate, Ash, is Evelyn’s boyfriend. The twins’ father committed suicide, hanging himself from the backyard gum-tree. Bear has been called a monkey – a clear reference to the Adam Goodes affair – and has other, deep, racial difficulties. He follows his father, and his family must cope with this double tragedy. The play is nevertheless often funny, and ends positively. The actors, all Indigenous, are natural, vigorous and totally believable.

Satirical, brutish, hilarious and finally shocking, Belfast-born playwright David Ireland’s Ulster American brings Oscar-winning actor Jay Conway, with Irish roots, Northern Irish playwright Ruth Davenport and director Irish Robert Jack together to discuss the production of Ruth’s new play about Tommy, a Unionist. This mix begins civilly enough but soon becomes incendiary, with Ruth maintaining her identity is British, not Irish, and refusing to change a word of her script, Jay discovering with horror he will star in a play promoting the Protestant cause, and Leigh weakly trying to calm things down. He fails, and expletives abound as fury mounts and becomes violent. But audience laughter persists until the appalling end.

Ulster American (Photo: Tony Lewis)
Ulster American (Photo: Tony Lewis)

Festival dance avoided politics. Instead, individuality was key. Meryl Tankard recreated her 1988 success Two Feet for superstar Natalia (Natasha) Osipova, former Bolshoi and current principal with the Royal Ballet. Based on Tankard’s student experiences and the career of renowned ballerina Olga Spessivtseva, who became obsessed with the role of Giselle, a peasant girl who went mad and died, and herself had a mental breakdown and died in care, the solo work received an often impassioned performance from Osipova, a great Giselle of today. An actor-dancer of superb expressiveness and immaculate technique, her rendition of parts of Giselle engendered hope she will return in the full ballet.

At the other end of the scale, Tankard produced a new work, Zizanie, for Restless Dance Theatre, Adelaide’s company for performers with and without disability. A story about a grump who tries to stop kids having fun because he can’t laugh but is eventually converted and joins in their games, it had a confident and endearing performance from the six-member cast.

Michael Noble and Kathryn Evans in Zizanie (Photo: Regis Lansac)
Michael Noble and Kathryn Evans in Zizanie (Photo: Regis Lansac)

The first big dance event was Dresden Opera Ballet’s Carmen, with a heroine who can hardly see a man without enticing him, and a Don José whose jealousy mounts as he stands silently watching until it overcomes him; having passionately embraced her he draws a knife and kills her. Choreographer Johan Inger added a young boy as an observer, signifying the death of innocence, and dark figures of death and guilt. The dancing was generally excellent, the story’s adaptation less successful.

Hofesh Shechter’s appropriately named Grand Finale ended the Festival in a whirlwind of movement presenting a generally depressing, chaotic world, with occasional glimpses of light. Bodies were frequently dragged about or off the stage as if dead. The indefatigable dancers were phenomenal in their performance of the often relentlessly fast choreography, but Shecter’s world view is not a happy one.

And that’s just a selection from the best of the 2019 Festival.

Ayaha Tsunak in Carmen (Photo: Jan Whalen)
Ayaha Tsunak in Carmen (Photo: Jan Whalen)

Revisit our complete 2019 Adelaide Festival coverage here

Adelaide Festival
March 1 – 17, 2019

Header image:
Natalia Osipova performs in Two Feet (Photo: Regis Lansac)

Adelaide In-depth

Get the latest stories, insights and exclusive giveaways delivered straight to your inbox every week.