Thursday, February 11, 2010

(Belated) Sydney Festival Wrap-Up

Something of a nearly irrelevantly late post on the Sydney festival, and I apologise for that, offering pathetic excuses of University showings and preparing for Quarterbred’s Tiny Stadiums. But it was an enjoyable Sydney Festival for me, one where I managed to see a couple of things that tickled my fancy, and I know of a few other shows that friends saw and enjoyed, so I thought it would be a shame not to write about it.

Also, almost as a gentle reminder, I just received a Sydney Festival t-shirt in the mail.

Sydney Festival is a great time to not have much money. There are almost always things on that I want to see, and these things cost money. So one has to make some very tough decisions. I made it to four shows, and regrettably missed three, not to mention missing out on a lot of the free Domain action.


Thomas Ostermeier’s Hamlet, from the acclaimed German company Schaub├╝hne, was the theatrical headliner of the festival. Big, fancy, foreign and cool. For me, Hamlet brought a standard that raises a lot of questions about Australian theatre. This level of theatre (not necessarily scale, but more the qualitative level) should be the rule, not the exception. There was a sharpness in this production, an immediacy and a thrilling sensation of theatre achieving great things, which I’ve only felt in a handful of shows (it’s quite easy to bring War of the Roses to mind). But perhaps I’m romanticising festival fare a bit too much. There was something to be said for the unshakeable feeling that this was a work that has now toured the world extensively; that the show itself was no longer the exciting challenge for the company that it may have been at the beginning - but does that matter to a new, Australian audience? Many of the moments of Lars stepping out of Hamlet to talk to the audience and make jokes, while done with an integrity that flowed through his entire performance, wore thin on me a little. And applause after jokes (in theatre and in stand-up) has always been a pet hate of mine. Perhaps I just felt slightly uncomfortable with how ‘cool’ the show was. And perhaps I am simply looking for things to criticise. Because I did think this show was fantastic.


A few days after Giselle, I saw Muziektheater Transparant’s Ruhe. After my initial excitement of Hamlet coming to Australia wore off, I started getting very excited about this show. And I was right, because this was my pick of the festival. This production was everything I wanted it to be, but I shall try and stop myself from waxing lyrical on it.
Ruhe is a combination of liedert by Schubert and Van Parys, and monologues drawn from interviews with ex-SS members taken in the 1960s. We enter University of Sydney’s Great Hall, which with its stained glass windows, huge organ and high ceiling is the perfect house for this show. Two hundred scattered, assorted wooden chairs for the audience form a giant circle pointing towards a small empty middle of the room. As we sit, eleven men stand on their chairs and begin to sing. Their voices are incredible, and on this Wednesday afternoon I find myself mesmerised by the sounds filling the building. Soon, a woman stands, and as the songs come to a close, begins to tell us of her childhood. She is dutch, and as a young girl, through completely normal and understandable circumstances became a member of the SS.
I am reminded on working on Talking to Terrorists with Mark Haslam last year. All the strengths of verbatim theatre are here; an easily relatable humanity and earnest desire to tell a story.
Both the performers, Han Kerckhoffs and Truus te Selle, are phenomenal. Real, honest, and fleshed out with a complexity and proficiency that honours the real life figures from whom the monologues have been formed.
Throughout the performance, there is a weight of history that I find tremendously interesting. It is serious, but not oppressively heavy as in the case that investigates subject material like this. The result was a liberation allowing insight into the people behind the history, culminating in the final song being performed next to a David Claerbout’s visual material, a haunting photo from the era with moving trees but statue-still people.
I cannot stress enough (though I did try not to) how beautiful, humbling and superbly crafted this piece of theatre was. Precisely what I wanted from my festival experience.

The Rest

I’ve already talked about Giselle, and Jenni has written of Six Characters (never have I wanted to leave a show at interval until that show). I wish I had seen Urban Theatre Project’s The Fence, I heard many good things about it and I had intended to find the time to make it. Similarly, apparently Oedipus Loves You was very interesting and I would have liked to have seen it. Finally, I missed out on Tempest: Without a Body and Fractured Again, both of which I read about after the event.

Did you see anything that we haven’t covered? Or maybe something we have? What did you think of it?


David Williams said...

Hi Nathan,

in my humble opinion, it was a pretty poor festival, programming wise. The best in the world? Hmmm, I don't think so. Hamlet, Ruhe, The Fence and Happy as Larry were the exceptions for me. But Six Characters was appallingly bad, and Optimism and Giselle were poor.

There's a good write up in the new RealTime about the Festival, if thats of interest


Jenni said...

I think it's fairly interesting how people respond to a festival programme. Shows like "Oedipus Loves You" lots of people enjoyed but concluded that it didn't necessarily change their worlds. I think that had it been on somewhere like downstairs Belvoir though there would be far more excitement surrounding it. There seems to be a bit of an expectation that we hold shows to when they come as part of a festival that is somewhat higher than normal theatre programming. I guess this is because someone has sought them out and brought them here. Do you think all festival shows should be mind blowing? Or do they allow room for just a sample of a particular work that has interesting aspects or represents a movement from a particular culture/location around the world without necessarily being brilliant?

Nathan said...

For me a lot of the joy of the festival comes from the sheer number of highly visible productions going on around the city. When I went to the matinee of Ruhe, at University of Sydney, and there was a 100m line to get in ten minutes before the show, it made me very happy.

Anonymous said...

I kinda have been expecting this in a way...
But I reali dun think da world is going to end...start a new era maybe but the world is not ending.
That's not gonna happen till a thousand years later! Ok, I'm not sure bout that either but that's not the point! The world's not gonna end! Full stop!
]planet nibiru 2012
[/url] - some truth about 2012

David said...

Oh dear, you have spammers on your blog. What was it that made Six Characters so appalling? Real shame, it's such a great text. I only mention it because I atually DID walk out of a performance at interval last week, a local production of King Lear that was quite simply the worst amateur theatre I've ever seen. Also, I'm seeing Schaubuhne's Hamlet in Berlin :D