The jaw-dropping Saul ushers in the new Adelaide Festival era with one of the most astonishing Festival shows of recent memory.
Brought exclusively to Australia for the Adelaide Festival thanks in part to a state government $700,000 grant last year, Saul was a slightly controversial big-ticket announcement as the centrepiece of Rachel Healy and Neil Armfield’s first Festival. Luckily, it was worth the investment, as Barrie Kosky’s (1996 Adelaide Festival director) modern version of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio about ego and envy will go down in Festival history as one of its great spectacles.
The first thing the audience notices on the black stage is a bloody decapitated head. Goliath’s head. His slayer, a shirtless David (countertenor Christopher Lowrey) appears soon after and is scratched and a bit bloody. The curtain rises to the first collective gasp from the audience, as an elaborate table setting with a feast of beasts and produce dominates the back of stage. Piled on is a gathering of Israelites in their finest 18th century get-up.
It looks like The Last Supper – with a few debaucherous extras – painted in Versailles. The Israelites are as still as mannequins, their only movements are quick choreographed position changes. They, along with King Saul (Christopher Purves), welcome David, who has conquered the philistine, Goliath. Saul offers David his daughter Merab (Mary Bevan) but she rejects him due to his lowly birth, plus Saul’s son Jonathan (Adrian Strooper) and other daughter Michal (Taryn Fiebig) are more interested in the innocent hero than Merab.
The chorus (a brilliant State Opera Chorus) move like a curious mob throughout, usually led by the High Priest (Stuart Jackson) looking like a Tim Burton extra with his painted white face, dark lips and gigantic black fingernails directing the swaying chorus. They are complemented in their movements by six dancers from the original Glyndebourne production who twist, twirl and occasionally pop and lock to tremendous effect.
David is ably performed by Lowrey who possesses the voice of an angel but the star is Purves as Saul. He stomps heavily around the stage looking like Marlon Brando in the late ‘70s and Saul’s descent into madness is part Colon el Kurtz and part King Lear when he tries to kill David and later calls on the underworld (in a shockingly brilliant scene).
Every set-piece is a work of art, from the aforementioned decadent dining table to the battle aftermath with bodies (and body parts) artfully placed around the stage. The performances, including the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, are first class and the experience is one that will be talked about for many years to come.
Simply, Saul is one of the most astonishing live performances Adelaide’s witnessed in years: a breathtaking spectacle of the highest order.
Saul was performed at the Festival Theatre on Friday, March 3 2017 for the Adelaide Festival and continues until Thursday, March 9
Photography: Tony Lewis