Meet the Melbourne Festival director who likes making a noise and a mess (as long as someone cleans it up afterwards).

It’s a measure of the esteem Jonathan Holloway is held in as a festival director, that he was offered an open-ended contract by Melbourne Festival when a three-year contract is more usual. And with the buzz building around his first Melbourne Festival, you can see why they would want to keep him. Already, with the Festival only three days old, a number of shows are sold out with many others selling fast. “Melbourne seems totally open and up for a challenging, exciting, immersive festival. They always have been,” says Holloway.

The genial Englishman, whose enthusiasm is both palpable and infectious, has been helming festivals for ten years now, with seven years at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival in the UK and four years at the Perth International Arts Festival. In Western Australia, he took the city by storm in 2015 when The Giants – larger-than-life puppets from French troupe Royal de Luxe – took to the streets, attracting an estimated 1.4 million people.

On the eve of the Melbourne Festival, people from five clans of the Kulan Nation performed a free welcome to country in Federation Square – an initiative called Tanderrum introduced by his predecessor Josephine Ridge. Then on Thursday’s opening night, Basque company Deabru Beltzak roamed around Federation Square with Les Tambours de Feu. Leading a throng of people, the small company of drummers in devilish masks filled the air with excitement with their pulse-racing drumming and pyrotechnics. Though vastly smaller in scale logistically and technically than The Giants, the event (which also took place on Friday and Saturday night) certainly got the party going.

“We had a great turn out [on Thursday],” says Holloway. “We reckon about 3000 people joined in, walked with it and were part of it, and a bunch of others probably watched it from a bar or café or hotel room thinking, ‘what on earth is that?’ But it was brilliant and the audience loved it. I like the idea that a Festival can have quiet, dark, exquisite moments in theatre and then it can go out into the street and make some noise and mess, as long as they clean it up afterwards.

“I reckon if you talked with Philip Glass about the nature of his work, the repetition in the drumming of Les Tambours de Feu is the same approach to ritualism and chordal structures, and almost the same primal nature of music, which gets us into a trance-like state. That might be going too far but I really like the idea that fundamentally people once banged rocks together around a fire, and the closer we can get to that on a regular basis, the better.”

The Philip Glass Ensemble (though not Glass himself) have been at the Festival for three performances of Glass’s hypnotic, operatic reworking of Jean Cocteau’s famous 1946 film La Belle et La Bête, performed live while the film screens behind the musicians and singers. “I’m pretty thrilled about that,” says Holloway.

Looking at what audiences have embraced at the box office so far, Holloway admits there have been a few surprises. “It’s interesting that the work that I’ve spent 20 years of my career finding the most difficult to sell flies out of the door in Melbourne – so the strange and quirky or the experimental and avant grade or the indescribable. That’s what people look to the Festival for. This is the moment when they want to leave their comfort zone,” he says.

He cites Thank You for Coming: Attendance by New York dance maker Faye Driscoll, which has sold out, as has The Echo of the Shadow by Barcelona’s Teatro de los Snetidos, a theatre experience for one audience member at a time. Lady Eats Apple by Geelong’s Back to Back Theatre is almost sold out, so too The Dark Chorus by Melbourne choreographer Lucy Guerin.

“Ironically the broader, more general appeal stuff isn’t what people have gone for. That’s now selling well but it’s taken longer,” says Holloway. “What we now need to do is build an audience that expects us to also do work, which is more open and accessible with wider appeal. I think we have the industry audience and the arts literate, arts passionate audience very strongly. We all know that 80 percent of people in Australia go to arts events during the year. Our job now is to find those people.”

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, the trash-talking, hilariously funny yet poignant play with music from the National Theatre of Scotland about six Catholic schoolgirls who “go mental” while in Edinburgh for a choral competition, is in that more GP category. However, audiences are loving it. “Even today we are seeing that word of mouth is picking up sales. Word of mouth spreads quickly in these cases,” says Holloway.

Describing the show as “rambunctious,” he says: “it goes between the bawdy, with incredibly bad language, to stories that are somewhere between heart-breaking and uplifting and beautiful – the idea [expressed by one of the characters] that they never taught us ‘love’ at school. I saw it and I absolutely loved it. I did hesitate thinking, ‘is this the sort of show that should be in a Festival or could it be done at any other time?’ And the answer is maybe it could be done at another time but they were touring it after Edinburgh then taking it to the National Theatre in London and then perhaps into the West End so the only way to persuade them to come to Australia was with a Festival. And it’s the perfect moment. They closed a few weeks ago at the National and will open in London again soon so it’s the perfect slot. Plus it’s really great theatre. And I’m really enjoying the extremes of the beauty and exquisite calmness of Triptych [a triple bill straddling dance and circus from Canada’s Les 7 Doigts de la Main] up against the potty-mouthed brilliance of Our Ladies.”

Asked for some of the upcoming highlights, Holloway nominates Robert Lepage’s 887. “It’s beautiful, it’s magical, it’s him on stage telling the story of his childhood in Quebec. It’s about race and identity and complex cities at a time of growth and immigration. He’s so virtuosic and he’s never performed on stage in Melbourne. His shows fluctuate between the durational and the magical. Some have been both, but this definitely feels on the magical side. To have that one page away from Back to Back [in the Festival brochure] just feels right. It feels confident of Melbourne and Australian artists. I have this urge to place Australian work alongside international work without apology or fear or nervousness.”

In the music programme, Holloway nominates pianists Zubin Kanga and Melvyn Tan, who he describes as “two end of a spectrum. Yes, they both start with the piano but play it in as different ways as I think humanly possible,” he says with a laugh. Kanga plays contemporary repertoire, including John Cage’s Sonatas & Interludes, while Tan plays Beethoven, Chopin and a new work written for him by British composer Jonathan Dove.

“I’m also really excited about Voces by Sara Baras,” says Holloway. “She is flamenco royalty and rarely comes to Australia. That’s 14 or 15 dancers and musicians on stage, and some great Spanish composers. That’s a great way to end the Festival. It’s unashamedly accessible but it’s about ‘duende’ and life and art.”

In the visual arts programme, there’s Lynette Walworth’s Collisions, a virtual reality experience, in which Nyarri Morgan tell the story of how he first came into contact with Western culture when he witnessed an atomic explosion in the South Australian desert. “I can’t quite talk about it yet because it made me cry. A lot,” says Holloway. “It’s beautiful and utterly heart-breaking. It uses 360 degree camera imaging and reality head-sets in a way that wasn’t possible five years ago.”

Holloway passionately believes that Festivals still play a vital role. “Anywhere in the world I look at where they’ve stopped at just heritage arts, they are not doing well in culture or creativity or often industry. You look at countries where the arts are looking backwards or looking to tradition and they tend not to be the places that leading in innovation, and therefore not leading in commerce or export or jobs. Yes, theatres and arts centres are doing amazing, year-round programmes but the ground is broken in nearly every case with Festivals. Our job is to do something until it is successful and then other people do it. The festival model allows audiences and artists to go much further than they would normally and have the excuse if they didn’t enjoy it, ‘well it’s a Festival show,’” he says with a smile. “It’s lovely, it’s a real out. But, to be honest, I get asked the question about the relevance of festivals in Australia more than anywhere else, and actually it’s the arts industry and arts journalists who ask it,” says Holloway. “We do like the idea of questioning their importance whereas we should just get on and do it.”


For full details of the Melbourne Festival programme, visit festival.melbourne/2016/