Review: The Festival Plays

A mixed Adelaide Festival theatre program was more provocative than previous years, writes Alan Brissenden.

“Rubbish!” exclaimed a drama professor. “Profound!” said a drama critic. Such oppositions were typically divisive opinions heard during the 2016 Adelaide Festival’s rich drama program. But there was no dissension about the magnificent The James Plays, a real coup, comparable with Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Roman Tragedies in 2014. Rona Munro’s driving narrative of early Scottish history was given riveting performance by a compelling cast. The three plays were distinctly different, but formed a cohesive whole, aided by strongly atmospheric music, effectively understated lighting. And a unit set, symmetrical, with stairs right, left and centre, a central doorway, audience seating from halfway up and a huge sword thrust upper left into the slightly raked stage. Politics comes thrillingly alive in these plays, enlivened by humour, sometimes grim. James I returns from English exile, taking on the quarrelsome Scottish nobles over land and taxes, resulting in bloody rebellion and well-staged fights. Lonely, facially birthmarked boy-king James II grows up to assert himself, has one friend whom he finally kills, shockingly, in a blind rage and gay, profligate James III spends the country’s small wealth emulating the French court. Bloodlessly ousted, he leaves his strong-willed wife, Margaret, ruling the kingdom. Action-packed James I contrasted with slight surrealism in James II, the young king first emerging from a trunk, and returning to it in troublous times as two factions try to gain control over him. James III has a quasi-modern setting, with country dancing to begin with, a small band, and singing. The play focuses on the court women, despite the increasingly mad James, and both the writing and the cast were particularly strong in the final scenes.

The-Country-Credit-Rodeo-Adelaide-Festival-Review-2016-Festival-Plays-theatre-The James Plays (photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan)

It was Romeo Castellucci’s Go Down, Moses that elicited the expostulations heading this article, though there was agreement that this controversial piece was produced well. From a nod to Pina Bausch in the first scene, through a bloody birth (too long), a police interrogation, an MRI test, two extraordinary, increasingly loud mechanical episodes to a final dive (again too long) into primal human beginnings, the play purported to relate to the journey of Moses and of mankind. Whether you understood it, liked or hated it, images from it would have stayed with you. Aussie avant-garde company Stone/Castro’s production of Martin Crimp’s The Country was for some a Festival highlight. Not exactly a thriller, it is a mysterious, enigmatic, and eventually unresolved play about a marriage needing repair. Dialogue is elliptical, with swift changes in direction; at times tension became almost palpable. Tight direction, an imaginative set and a convincingly passionate cast – Jo Stone, Nathan O’Keefe and Natalia Sledz – led to an absorbing performance for many in the audience, if by no means all.

The-Country-Credit-Rodeo-Adelaide-Festival-Review-2016-Festival-Plays-theatre-The Country (photo: Rodeo)

Phillip Kavanagh’s Deluge split audiences along generational lines. Many over-50s couldn’t understand it; most young enjoyed it, cottoning on to Kavanagh’s treatment of his subject – the deluge of words pouring out of electronic media. Five couples, immersed to the waist in white plastic foam cubes, talk across each other in rapid-fire counterpoint, as can happen with, say, Faceboook. They are of course physically separated, until the end, when they emerge from the foam blocks and swim to the centre where they dive down, together finally, but into darkness. Experimental, not completely successful, but worth doing.

Deluge-Antoine-Jelk-Credit-Ché-Chorley-Adelaide-Festival-Review-2016-Festival-Plays-theatre-Deluge (photo: Ché Chorley)

Garlanded with British praise, Golem satirically attacks modern dependence on electronic devices while using some of them to tell its story based on the old Jewish legend of a man who makes a clay Golem for a servant, and is taken over by him. In Suzanne Andrade’s version for theatre company 1927, Robert Robertson’s dull life changes when he buys a huge clay Golem (Golem 1) who does the shopping, works for him, and often speaks in advertising slogans. He is replaced by Golem 2, smaller, faster, snappier. Golem 3 will be a chip implanted in Robert’s brain. The message that we have been taken over by the digital world is thrust at us by a kaleidoscopic combination of five actors, animation, claymation, live music and loads of humour (or so I believe; the night I was there the sound was so distorted from where I was sitting I missed much of the script). The synthesis is brilliant, but failed to please everyone.

Golem-1927-Credit-Bernhard-Mueller-Adelaide-Festival-Review-2016-Festival-Plays-theatre-Golem (photo: Bernhard Mueller)

Similarly, David Greig’s The Events left some in tears; others walked out. Inspired by the Norwegian massacre of young people by Anders Breivik, the play has two characters, Claire, an Anglican priest, who is coming to terms with the shooting of some choir members, and the Boy, the murderer; the actor playing the Boy plays several other parts. A choir, ranged behind the actors, their songs relevant to the changing moods and situations. Catherine McClements’ quietly powerful performance captured Claire’s anguished searching for an explanation for the killing and her struggle to forgive the gunman and was well matched by Johnny Carr’s as the Boy. Plays for the young were not immune from the prevailing divisiveness. Some, mostly adults, were disappointed with Slingsby’s production of The Young King, dramatised from a moral tale by Oscar Wilde. Tim Overton had exactly the right touch as the Young King – a slight naivety, an easy engagement with the audience. Jacqy Phillips’s vocal range was put to wonderful service in several different roles, and Quincy Grant played his own piano score with discretion and where necessary vehemence. Far more spectacular, Erth’s Prehistoric Aquarium used black theatre, video and puppetry to immerse the audience in creatures of the ancient deep, from glowing jelly fish to two giant monsters brought out over the audience by puppeteers. The didactic first half was too long and wordy; the second, the puppets becoming larger with each new species, captivating. But grandson Oliver (8) remarked astutely that The Young King was the better play. This year’s drama was more varied, more provocative and just as exciting as any previous Festival’s. A highly satisfactory final flourish from David Sefton. The Adelaide Festival of Arts 2016 ran from February 26 until March 14 adelaidefestival.com.au

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