Malcolm Page 
Adelaide Festival, Australia, 2014.
Adelaide Festival, in the first two weeks of March, is the biggest Australian cultural festival, with a tradition of programming major shows on the world circuit accompanied by the planet’s second biggest Fringe (after Edinburgh). Fourteen theatre events are listed with a lot of music, from John Zorn to Bach motets, and a dash of dance and visual arts. While to be in the Edinburgh official programme is a virtual guarantee of quality, here the world-class was juxtaposed with the third-rate and the inexplicable choices. To look at this more positively, here is something for everyone.
The highlight in 2014 was The Roman Tragedies of Shakespeare, by Toneelgroep, Amsterdam, directed by Ivo Van Hove. Premiered in 2007, this has played in Avignon, London, Antwerp, Zurich, Wroclaw, Barcelona, Montreal and New York. With this record, most readers will know of this tour de force. Apart from its six-hour length, the originality is the encouragement given to the audience to move about, change seats, use the onstage bar and computers, mingle with actors on the stage (a big stage with sets mainly created by moving boxes), come in for particular scenes (the programme gives the times, so you might only want “Friends, Romans and countrymen”). John Arden, in his sixties heyday, speculated about a 13-hour play with the audience only coming for its favourite bits. All this is intended to re-create the behaviour of Elizabethan spectators. I think the Australian audience was more cautious about this freedom to move than European ones might be.
The second element is Van Hove’s approach to Shakespeare’s texts. All is modern dress, not even army uniforms where they might be expected. There is no blood (contrast Tim Riddlestone covered in blood as Coriolanus at the National Theatre in London, 2013); swords and daggers are mimed. Cassius and Octavius are played by women, which did bother me. TV news bulletins sometimes update us: Enobarbus, followed by a video camera, goes into the street outside before dying. A film of a loud rock group for some reason interrupts Antony & Cleopatra. Signs indicate such information as five minutes to Caesar’s death, 180 minutes to Cleopatra’s. Octavia, her part expanded, stands out for an imposed characterisation, vacant and gum-chewing. Frieda Pittoors was a powerful Volumnia and Chris Nietwelt a volatile Cleopatra.
What can be learned from this ambitious and successful venture? I expect that we will see more efforts to jolt audiences from passivity. Yet I also was distracted from the full impact of Shakespeare’s words, characters and tragedy—without sounding too solemn about a great achievement.
Other major international events included Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium, and groups Ontroerend Goed and SKaGeN, both from Belgium. These were made to appear more special with only three to five performances (Roman Tragedies had only three).
The Seagull, by the State Theatre Company of South Australia, was in the Festival programme yet also part of the Company’s season. Hilary Bell was credited with a new “version” and “adaptation.” Words are slippery here, but the text can’t be both. I see it as a version with minor additions and alterations. AND totally unnecessary as there are excellent recent translations.
Staged in a traverse, hence minimal scenery, this Seagull featured some deliberately hammy acting to emphasize dramatic theatrical qualities and fight that tradition of languid melancholy boredom. Geordie Brockman’s direction had oddities, with the whole cast singing “I’ll fly away” at the end of Act 1. Generally his decisions and innovations succeed: Masha is on her knees to Dorn, Konstantin is lying on the floor crying after his mother changes his bandage, Nina takes the initiative in passionately kissing Trigorin. I will remember Konstantin, in bloody shirt, throwing the dead seagull on to Nina’s lap, then holding the rifle out to her, then putting the gun to his head, finally putting his head on her lap. I mention three who were outstanding: Matilda Bailey as a very mixed-up, desperate Masha, and Lucy Fry (Nina) and Xavier Samuel (Konstantin) as very young, combining hope and naïveté.
Oscar McLennan from Ireland performed a one-man show, the world premiere of his Kiss of the Chicken King, which he had published as a novel (unnoticed?) three years ago. The stage is bare but for a chair and two guitars—how many times have I seen this set-up? The writing, ranging from death and existence through the cake-eating rich to an escaped goldfish, was undistinguished and the few songs inaudible. I saw glimpses of the life of a lonely man, the bits where we were supposed to be charmed by his personality, but I disliked the bleakness and was mostly bored. The Chicken King, by the way, was Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken: how did he get into this incoherent narrative?
Girl Asleep and Fugitive are linked, part of Matthew Whittet’s trilogy for Windmill Theatre, Adelaide, all 80-90 minute pieces directed by Rosemary Myers with a very young cast. The connection is all about, in Whittet’s words, “closing the doors of childhood and opening up the strange and incongruous doors of adolescence.” The publicity emphasis slightly differs: “Rites-of-passage stories that explode defining adolescent moments.” So a target audience restricted to adolescents?
The first half of Girl Asleep is a fairly predictable account of a 14-year-old girl, who is starting at a new school. She has a nerdish father, former beauty queen mother and playgirl older sister. Her mother insists on a party for her 15th birthday despite her protests. During the party she sleeps, has weird experiences, or hallucinates. With loud music, flashing lights, dry ice, various odd and scary creatures appear, such as a queen, a crone, a goblin, a plastic horse. Bettelheim may be an influence here. References to manga, hip-hop, sci-fi and current music mostly passed me by. Ridiculous—though also audacious to try to put onstage this dream/nightmare. Resolution comes (I may be wrong) when she gives a much-loved music box to her 8-year-old self. Much sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Fugitive at least has a sort of narrative from the start, a boy as Robin Hood, with Marion, Friar Tuck and company, in a hostile world fighting sheriffs and medieval knights who are also ninja warriors. A “hysterical, anarchic knife-edge ride,” says the publicity, but somehow I didn’t feel on the ride and remained baffled through both plays I saw—and I greatly doubt whether the third made for clarity or understanding.
The 136-page Fringe programme lists nearly 1,000 events, with only 112 in the theatre section. The rest include 269 as comedy, 107 as cabaret, 41 as for children, 32 as dance and 25 as “circus and physical theatre.” I found the programme difficult to use, as the small print often indicates that shows are only one for one of the four weeks, and the locations mostly convey nothing to the newcomer. Publicity actually makes a virtue of the number of venues outside the city centre. I found three places that had a buzz, of crowds and food stalls, each with several temporary buildings, the Royal Croquet Club and, side by side, Gluttony and the Garden of Unearthly Delights. Parkland and fine weather made the last distinctive—what the Pleasaunce ad Underbelly in Edinburgh cannot emulate because of the climate. I still missed a bigger presence for the Fringe: it might help to do as Edinburgh does, where each Fringe venue has a huge board with a number in front. I found no equivalent to the stretch of the Royal Mile, jammed with both samples of acts and hundreds of young people handing out fliers and talking up their show. The local paper The Advertiser had a column headed “Why the Fringe could do with a bit of a trim,” noting “The more acts the Festival attracts every year, the more divided audiences’ attention becomes, and the more likely that smaller, ‘alternative’ artists will suffer.” What other way is there? Restriction? A lottery?
By far the most polished of Fringe shows I saw was Carousels and Clotheslines by Vague de Cirque, acrobats—six men and two women—from Montreal. The eight were individualized by costume and manner. Along with their skilled trapeze work, juggling, silent clowning, the show had an anarchic and playful style, perhaps reflecting a Quebec sensibility. What I saw of the Fringe, otherwise, was the mixture as before, one-man shows like Swamp Juice, by a Canadian shadow-puppeteer, one-woman shows, like Bitch Boxer, an English girl taking on women’s’ boxing, twice in London at the Soho Theatre, a few short plays. A Special Day, a two-person Mexican company Por Piedad Teatro performing a version of an Italian film set in 1938 (with the same title, directed by Ettore Scola, 1977), won awards in Adelaide and later in Prague, so I under-estimated it.
The Fringe has sprouted three days of Street Theatre, a chance for lots more circus material (I even wondered if balancing was easier than it looked). The star was an amazing Swedish magician, Charlie Caper, who had no help from indoor theatre resources, nor from distracting assistants.
Adelaide is a pleasant city and the weather was fine: a worthwhile trip.
 Malcolm Page, educated at Cambridge and the University of California, is Professor Emeritus of English at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. His books include John Arden, Richard II and Howards End (“Critics Debate”), and nine volumes on contemporary British dramatists for the “File on…” series. For 25 years he has written a column on theatre in Vancouver for the British monthly, Plays International. He has recently researched the reception of Canadian plays in Britain and is working on the history of Vancouver theatre.
Copyright © 2015 Malcolm Page
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