Brisbane Festival has announced its 2018 program. The semi-staged performance of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, starring Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton, which has already been announced, is one of the highlights. Other works include a new piece by Circa called En Masse, performed to Schubert’s Winterreise and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Brink Productions’ Memorial  starring Helen Morse, and the return of Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s Symphony For Me.

Memorial, Brisbane FestivalHelen Morse in Memorial. Photograph © Shane Reid

The full program contains almost 600 performances (of which 100 are free) of almost 70 shows across 17 venues. This year the Festival’s Artistic Director David Berthold has divided the program into three acts.

“Festivals can be hard to navigate and this is a longish festival –  three weeks including four weekends – so we have divided it into three acts just to give it a little bit of shape. Each of the acts has a thematic focus, so it provides people with a way to think about it and talk about it,” says Berthold.

Act One revolves around ideas of home, memory and gender. One of the key events is Brink Productions’ Memorial, a moving elegy to those killed in battle, which had its premiere at this year’s Adelaide Festival, winning rave reviews. Based on Alice Oswald’s poem, which honours the 215 warriors who die in Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, it stars a magnificent Helen Morse and a community of more than 200 local performers. Staged by Chris Drummond, Brink’s Artistic Director, and Yaron Lifschitz, Artistic Director of Circa, it is beautifully staged, with touching, eloquent choreography and transcendently beautiful music composed of Jocelyn Pook. Immediately after the Brisbane Festival, Memorial goes to London for a short season at the Barbican.

Symphony For Me featuring Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photograph courtesy of Brisbane Festival

Act One also features Symphony For Me, a free concert by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, programmed by the public. The event was staged at the Festival in 2015 and 2016, and there were complaints from audience members when it wasn’t programmed last year. “We go to the public and ask people what their favourite bit of orchestral music is. It’s usually attached to some event in their lives. The five or six people we choose come on stage and tell their stories and then we sit them next to the conductor facing the orchestra and we put a camera on them so the audience can see their responses,” says Berthold.

The first time Symphony For Me was staged, one lady told how as a child in Afghanistan she had heard a piece of music blaring out of speakers when the Russians invaded. Years later in Brisbane, she discovered that the music was from Swan Lake, a section of which the QSO played. Berthold remembers talking to one of the orchestra’s violinists who said he had a tear in the eye as they played the music.

Also programmed as part of Act One is Stalin’s Piano, a compelling musical exploration of a century of history, art and politics. The multimedia composition by Brisbane composer Robert Davidson features pianist Sonya Lifschitz weaving virtuosic music together with video and audio recordings of eminent artists and political figures.

Geoff Sobelle’s Home. Photograph © Jacques-Jean Tiziou

Theatre includes Hamnet, a solo piece from Ireland performed by an 11-year old boy, which plays with the story of Shakespeare, his son Hamnet who died at age 11, and his play Hamlet, and a wordless play from the US called Home, by Geoff Sobelle and Beth Morrison Projects. “The stage is utterly bare when you go in, and there is a lot of magic and illusion as a home gets built,” says Berthold of Home. “You know that generations have existed in a home, and here they are all on stage at the same time – but they can’t hear each other because they exist at different times. So it is a masterpiece of choreography.” Celebrating all the things that make a house a shome, Berthold says that quite a few of the audience will find themselves up on stage at the end as part of a joyous house party.

Act Two casts the individual against the giant forces of nature, fate and society in thrilling expressions of circus, dance and music. Peter Grimes is central to this section, featuring Stuart Skelton with a high-calibre cast and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Scotland’s Rory Macdonald. “For a semi-staging it is quite staged. It is fully costumed and Peter Grimes’ hut is made on stage. I think people will be quite surprised when they see it,” says Berthold.

Circa’s En Masse. Photograph © Damien Bremberg

En Masse, a new work from Circa commissioned by the Festival, is performed in two parts – winter, featuring an adaptation of Schubert’s Winterreise, performed by English tenor Rob Murray, and spring featuring Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring performed on two pianos by Tamara-Anna Cislowska and Michael Kieran Harvey. Berthold has watched rehearsals and describes it as “a really beautiful bit of work and totally in tune with the music – so it’s an exciting event musically, physically and conceptually.”

Act Three delivers a fierce, fun climax with events including a children’s opera called The Owl & The Pussycat, and Horror, a scary piece of physical theatre without dialogue from The Netherlands by the Jakop Ahlbom Company, which draws on classic horror movies, which has been described as “funny and irresistibly terrifying”.

Brisbane Festival runs September 8 – 29