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Nelken

From a royal marathon to avant-garde music, the Adelaide Festival takes performance to the limit

By Katrina Lobley

“This festival,” says David Sefton, Adelaide Festival’s artistic director, “likes its epic theatre.”

He’s not wrong there. This is, after all, the same festival that in 1988 put on a show so epic that it finished at 7 o’clock the next morning (The Mahabharata.)

A decade later, along came Robert Le Page’s seven-hour production, The Seven Streams of the River Ota.

And in 2014, Sefton programmed Roman Tragedies – a trilogy of Shakespeare power plays performed in Dutch over six hours.

It’s only fitting, then, that Sefton included something of similar heft for his fourth and final festival.

Each of the new 2½-hour history plays in the James Plays Trilogy can be seen alone or combined for 11 hours of gripping regal narrative interspersed with meal breaks.

Signing up for all the plays, says Sefton, “is the way to do it”.

Rona Munro’s new trilogy told the story of three generations of Stewart kings who ruled Scotland in the tumultuous 15th century.

The production, a joint effort from the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre of Great Britain, was exclusive to Adelaide and had its Australian premiere on February 27.

“It’s that fantastic thing of big meaty theatre that you sink your teeth into – you sink into your chair and you know you’re there for the next eight hours,” Sefton says.

“It was the opening show of the Edinburgh International Festival last year – I was there for the opening cycle of it.

“There’s nothing quite like it in terms of an audience experience – and you learn a lot. It’s about the true historical stories of the three Jameses and you learn a lot about Scottish history. It’s just that big epic theatre done at the highest possible standard. If you like theatre, there’s not much better.”

Game of Thrones fame

Audiences may also recognise some of the faces on stage. The cast includes Scottish actors Blythe Duff, the longest-serving cast member of the TV detective series Taggart, and John Stahl from Game of Thrones.

Each performance also included seats built into the set – audience members could sit on one of the onstage benches to be in among the action.

Other theatre highlights included Go Down, Moses from Italian provocateur Romeo Castellucci (his company, Societas Raffaello Sanzio, is considered one of the world’s most avant-garde and ambitious theatre troupes).

The piece, a meditation on the human psyche, explores existential uncertainties from the Old Testament Book of Exodus.

“They’re my favourite theatre company on the planet,” says Sefton.

“This one’s not for the faint-hearted – it’s a strong work that deals with big and contentious issues. It’s definitely not a family show, let’s put it that way. Do not bring the kids.”

Something that was suitable for kids – at least those aged 12 and older – is Golem.

“It’s about the origins of the Frankenstein myth,” says Sefton.

“The actors interact with projections in a really smart, very funny way. The company, 1927, has a very distinctive look of its own.” The production synthesises animation, claymation, live music and performance.

There were strong ticket sales to see the Adelaide Oval stadium spectacular created by French masters of fire and light, Groupe F.

“They specialise in the extremely spectacular,” says Sefton.

“This isn’t just a fireworks display – it’s a proper show using actors, large-scale projection and massive tell-your-local-airport pyrotechnics.”

The credits certainly hint at a roster of unusual talents behind the show: the list of company roles includes a master of fluids, a contraption tamer, illusion contriver, light fisher, conjurer and off-ground dancer.

Bestselling show 

The show was also a chance to see the revamped Adelaide Oval, which underwent a multi-million-dollar redevelopment over recent years.

“What’s fantastic is that we have the oval now,” says Sefton.

“When I started [Sefton moved to Adelaide in 2011], it was the old oval and this wouldn’t have worked. It’s the bestselling and fastest-selling show in the history of the Adelaide Festival.”

Besides theatre, the Adelaide Festival presented a sweeping program of dance, music, visual arts, family shows and free productions.

Dance enthusiasts saw the ground-breaking German company Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in Australia for the first time in 16 years.

The company’s founder, choreographer Pina Bausch, died in 2009 but her revered company keeps her works alive.

Its performance of Nelken from March 9-12 is another Australian premiere.

“There’s not another company that’s such a big deal in the dance world,” says Sefton.

“This piece Nelken, which is German for carnations, had never been seen in Australia and is generally acknowledged to be one of her greatest works.

“It’s only here so this is your only chance to see it in Australia probably ever. It’s a fantastic piece – it goes beyond dance.

“What she perfected was a theatrical approach to dance. It’s got loads of text in it, bits of it are extremely funny and it’s on a large scale. It’s a spectacular piece of choreography and performance – it’s one of those unforgettable experiences.”

Personal wish list for the Adelaide Festival

As enthusiastic as Sefton is about all of the performing arts in his festival, he has a particular soft spot for music.

With 2016 being his final festival, Sefton programmed a “personal wish-list night” of music for the festival’s final weekend.

On March 12, the Thebarton Theatre filled with the sounds of both the American drone metal robe-wearing band Sunn O))) and French prog-rock ensemble Magma, which uses a constructed language in its lyrics.

Sefton says Sunn O))) “use noise as one of the tools of what they do – they use noise not in an aggressive way but as part of the show”.

“We’re combining them with another remarkable group who have never been to Australia,” says Sefton.

“Magma were formed in France in 1969 and they’ve had a remarkable output. They are literally unclassifiable. They have this extraordinary following. I was in London [before moving to Los Angeles and then to Adelaide] and I put a Magma show on at the Royal Festival Hall and Paul McCartney turned up in the audience. They’re a very, very unusual band that’s never set foot on Australian soil and this is their only show.”

Tectonics returned to Adelaide in 2016 as a “festival within a festival”.

Founded by conductor Ilan Volkov in Iceland in 2012 to showcase eclectic, experimental new music, iterations of the festival have since popped up around the world.

“It’s cutting-edge new music done with our symphony orchestra,” says Sefton.

Volkov conducts the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra for the first night of Tectonics on March 4; the following night’s program features ensembles premiering experimental works.

“These things can go one way or the other,” says Sefton. “The orchestra might not have liked me after we did it the first time because it’s challenging work and it’s hard to play – but they loved it.”

For his last hurrah, Sefton has also “consciously programmed a big showcase of South Australian work”.

“There’s a company called Tiny Bricks that will make its stage debut at the festival,” he says.

The show Deluge, which explores information overload, featured five plays running simultaneously.

At the Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in central Adelaide, visitors saw Boo! – an exhibition about spooky spirits within indigenous cultures.

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