The opening weekend of the Adelaide Festival is invariably one of Australia’s buzziest, most exciting artistic occasions; it certainly has been under the leadership of its current joint Artistic Directors Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy. This year – the Festival’s 60th anniversary – was no exception.

The two central opening productions were Romeo Castellucci’s staging of Mozart’s Requiem and the Almeida Theatre’s acclaimed production of The Doctor starring Juliet Stevenson. But there were more than 10 other events running over the course of the weekend with numerous more to follow. I saw five productions in two days, each of which was compelling in its own way.

Adelaide Festival
Requiem. Photograph © Tony Lewis

Armfield and Healy have programmed an operatic production as a centrepiece of each of their Festival programs: Barrie Kosky’s staging of Handel’s dramatic oratorio Saul in 2017, Brett Dean’s opera Hamlet in 2018, and Kosky’s production of The Magic Flute, created with English theatre company 1927 in 2019. This year, Castellucci’s Requiem, which premiered at last year’s Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, filled that spot, and proved a far more contentious choice. It was a fabulous festival piece – a radical reimagining that divided audiences and critics, and prompted lively debate among all who saw it, whether they loved it or loathed it.

The Doctor – a gripping play written and directed by Robert Icke – also prompted animated discussion among audience members about the themes it addressed and the clever way it did so. What’s more, Juliet Stevenson gave a towering performance; one you aren’t likely to forget.

In my short but very sweet visit to the Festival, I also saw Eight, Dimanche and Between Tiny Cities.

Adelaide Festival
A still from Eight. Image supplied

Eight is a virtual reality installation, with music by renowned Dutch composer Michel van der Aa, who is also a director and a video artist. It was written for Kate Miller-Heidke, who sings the gorgeous, delicate, pop-infused songs, drawing on her classical training. She is accompanied at times by singers from the Nederlands Kamerkoor. The music, incidentally, forms the centerpiece of a new album called Falling Time.

Audiences see Eight one at a time. Entering a dark space, you are fitted with a headset and VR glasses. A voice tells you to walk to the start of the pathway in front of you and wait there for a woman to appear. You’re tentative, not sure what to expect, and then a woman appears and beckons you. She’s not elderly but past middle-age. She is also translucent though her facial expression feels decidedly real. You don’t feel you should reach out and touch her – her expression as she stares at you certainly holds you at bay – but you know that if you did, your hands would slide through her. Yet your hands have taken on an animated quality. They are certainly yours, but they now belong in this strange, virtual reality. As you follow her around a corner, she has transformed into a younger woman (an avatar of Miller-Heidke), and then later a young girl – all the same person, at different ages, we assume. Without giving too much away, you will find yourself in rocky mountains with a valley below, then lush pastures. You will view images of the cosmos and an endless wooden floor. When a flock of glowing red lights lead you out at the end, it’s like waking from a dream. Eight lasts 15 minutes but it feels far shorter. I felt sad it was over so quickly, and wished I could see it again straight away so I could take in different things.

Adelaide Festival
Dimanche. Photograph © Alice Pierre

Dimanche is an inventive family show from Belgium. Written and directed by Julie Tenret, Sicaire Durieux and Sandrine Heyraud, it is performed by Sicaire Durieux, Sandrine Heyraud and Christine Heyraud from Belgium’s Chaliwaté and Focus companies.

Ingeniously staged featuring dioramas, puppetry, witty set designs, and video, the three performers play documentary filmmakers attempting to document Earth’s final remaining animals, all facing extinction following a climate catastrophe. They also portray a family trying to survive while battling heat so extreme it melts their vinyl records and kitchen table, howling gales that blow them across the room, and a tsunami that submerges them. The puppets of a polar bear and cub on melting ice are heartbreakingly beautiful, while the puppet of a gnarled, elderly lady is hilarious, whimsical and poignant. It’s all beautifully done, appealing to children as well as adults: an eloquent message about the disaster around the corner caused by climate change.

Adelaide Festival
Between Tiny Cities. Photograph © Bryony Jackson

Between Tiny Cities is performed in a large circular performance space by breakdancers Aaron Lim from Darwin and Erak Mith from Phenom Penh, with the audience standing around the outside. Choreographed by Nick Power, it’s a wonderful duet in which the two young men virtually never take their eyes off each other for the 40-minute show as they relate in a kind of dancing duel. It’s playful and funny as they interact, mimic each other’s rhythms, compete and engage through the language of hip hop. Naturally there are flashy spins, leaps and physical tricks, but other moments are slow and considered, just flashes of hands and quick flicks of limbs. At one point they link bodies and fold around each other. Performed to beats by Jack Prest, it’s an uplifting piece about communicating through dance.

The opening weekend also saw the 150 Psalms project get underway, with our first five-star review now posted. We have also reviewed Dance Nation, and will be reviewing shows throughout the Festival, which runs until March 15.