George Bernard Shaw once said “No conflict no drama”. He would have found plenty of both in the 2018 Adelaide Festival.
Intentionally or not, conflict was a theme from first to last, beginning with Brett Dean’s magnificent Hamlet.
This Hamlet is not an opera with arias, recitatives and intermezzi. Directed by Adelaide Festival co-director Neil Armfield, it becomes gripping, seamless dramatic musical narrative. Matthew Jocelyn’s libretto is a masterpiece in itself. He reduces the number of characters, and transposes lines, phrases and even single words of the play or repeats them – Ophelia’s “Never, never, never…” is particularly effective. He even changes the plot by keeping Rosencrantz and Guildenstern alive instead of killing them off on the English voyage, as Shakespeare does. Instead, they are still there in the last scene for Claudius to use them as a useless human shield so that, with him, they are thrust through by the poisoned rapier that has already killed Laertes and fatally wounded Hamlet.
Conflict was given a modern twist in The Hayloft Project’s rewriting of the Roman Seneca’s bloody revenge tragedy Thyestes, in which the sons of a deposed king are murdered and served up to him for dinner. With only three actors, a completely vernacular script, which began hilariously and declined to horror, and brilliantly performed on a traverse stage, the performance deeply divided audiences, but no one could have left the theatre without having some emotional reaction.
A retelling of the Iliad by Lisa Peterson and actor Denis O’Hare, framing the narrative in modern idiom and relating past and present, was a 2014 Festival highlight. This year gave us Brink Productions enthralling Memorial, Alice Oswald’s long poem which she pronounced a “translation of the atmosphere, not its story”. Dismissing seven-eighths of Homer’s epic, instead she memorialised every soldier in the battle. Helen Morse was onstage for 90 minutes, reciting, performing the poem, among the cast of soldiers – men, women and children in casual clothes who moved across and around the stage in varying numbers – singly, in groups of two or three or more, sometimes all 179 of them. An orchestra, two small choirs and solo singers on a mezzanine above the stage were integral to the production’s success.
But Helen Morse was the marvel: never exaggerating, never sentimentalising, never faltering. It was a superb performance.
Anyone remembering Toneelgroep’s dazzling Roman Tragedies from that 2014 Festival would know what they might hope for in the company’s Kings of War this year. Director Ivo van Hove, again using television to great effect, meshed together Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays, put them in modern dress and adapted the text, while keeping major speeches intact. The power struggles that began with Henry V’s French victory in 1415 ended with Richmond’s defeat of Richard III at Bosworth in 1485. It was a cunning move to have Ramsey Nasr play both a quiet, passionate Henry V and the victorious Richmond, who became Henry VII. In a uniformly strong cast Hans Kesting was a stealthy, predatory Richard who has no regard for the country, only for himself. A cameraman followed characters behind the scenes into a corridor behind the stage, where discussion, torture and murder occurred, often violently.
Less obviously violent, conflict also animated dance. Stephen Page’s Bennelong for Bangarrra Dance Theatre is not a straightforward narrative, but a sequence of scenes that sometimes reference historical events and sometimes ritual and myth. Captured and then befriended by Governor Phillip, Bennelong, senior member of the Eora of the Sydney region, was taken to England in 1792 by Phillip, but on returning was rejected by both Aboriginal and white communities. He took to drink and died. The internal conflict of maintaining a balance between two cultures is still much with us, and Page’s work is a
powerful statement, with an outstanding performance by Beau Dean Riley Smith in the title role – commanding, dramatically compelling, and supremely well danced.
Rebellion is a different form of conflict in Israel Galván’s FLA.CO.MEN, in which this charismatic dancer and six musicians push the boundaries of flamenco. Leaping, striking angular poses, throwing his arms into sweeping gestures, his hands moving so fast they match the zapateado of his feet as they beat the floor, Galván is changing the face of flamenco.
As it began with conflict, so it ended, with a mysterious, emotional and profound work by master choreographer and dancer Akram Khan, making one of his last few appearances as a dancer in Xenos, a reflection on war, particularly the deaths of so many of the millions of colonial soldiers, particularly Indian sepoys, fighting for the British Empire in World War I. The text by Canadian poet Jordan Tanahill relates the dreams of a shell-shocked sepoy in no-man’s land Khan’s superb dancing infuses drama and pathos into the whole work, a fitting conclusion to one of the finest Festivals ever.