Brisbane Festival’s theme this September is “Brightly Brisbane”, after new Artistic Director Louise Bezzina named her first festival last year “Boldly Brisbane” – since it was one of the few festivals in the world able to proceed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was a wonderful festival last year but extremely challenging to not have massive gatherings or invite people to really come together,” Bezzina tells Limelight.

“We’re still living and breathing with the pandemic, but the great thing is we can come back together again in a really bright, shimmery way, with a sense of celebration.”

Sky Castle, Brisbane Festival, 2021. Image © Zhu Rui

Over 23 days, Brisbane Festival will premiere 18 new works, deliver 130 productions – 18 of which are First Nations-led – and present events in 222 locations across the city. The spine of the city is the Brisbane River, and thus the festival has created an “art boat” in 2021, as a blank canvas and a new way of experiencing visual art: a large barge that will transport visitors from Northshore Brisbane to South Bank and back each evening.

The boat will feature glowing light installations such as the multi-sensory Airship Orchestra and the dreamscape inflatable Sky Castle, which is accompanied by an ethereal symphonic score.

Queensland Theatre’s long-awaited stage adaptation of Brisbane writer Trent Dalton’s best-selling novel Boy Swallows Universe will premiere at the QPAC Playhouse, directed by Sam Strong. “It’s an incredible coming-of-age story, of Brisbane, really,” says Bezzina. “But I imagine it will have a very long life beyond Brisbane Festival.”

Dalton has also teamed with photographer David Kelly to create a film as a backdrop for Love Stories, while quintet Topology and guitarist Karin Schaupp will play on stage at the South Bank Piazza.

“It’s a contemporary tribute to love,” says Bezzina. “It looks at pain and loss and isolation. They’ve spent time with Fortitude Valley’s iconic 139 Club, a drop-in centre for Brisbane’s homeless and at-risk communities, which really drew me to the project.”

Brisbane Festival

Street Serenades, Brisbane Festival, 2020. Photo © Atmosphere Photography

Street Serenades returns to the festival after its debut with “guerilla” concerts across 190 Brisbane suburbs last year, whose locations could not be announced ahead of time because of social distancing requirements.

This year, the locations, dates and times for the huge array of rock, pop, cabaret, DJs, circus, folk, jazz, classical and world concerts will be announced in advance, mostly in August, and the line-up includes Queensland Ballet, 7 Sopranos, Montaigne, Christine Anu and Boy and Bear.

“It provides an opportunity for the festival to go to literally every part of the city, and everyone gets to have an experience,” says Bezzina, who adds the festival will “absolutely” stage 190 free concerts again this year, with a host added at every concert.

Melbourne’s Ilbijerri Theatre Company will present Heart is a Wasteland, a “cross-country, whisky fuelled love story” written by John Harvey, directed by Rachael Maza, and starring Dion Williams, Monica Jasmine Karo and Gary Watling.

This new production, with new sets, musical arrangements and audio design, had been due to be part of Melbourne’s cancelled RISING festival in June. The show originally premiered at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne in 2017, with Ursula Yovich and Aaron Pedersen in the lead roles.

Vicki Van Hout will perform in Brisbane for the first time in two decades, presenting plenty serious TALK TALK at La Boite. A satire of cultural commodification, Van Hout takes on the persona Miss Light Tan, a woman who wonders how much people will pay for her Indigeneity before auctioning off her dance steps.

The character “uses ochre as a crutch”, says Van Hout, who is of Wiradjuri and Dutch descent. The show won two 2020 Green Room awards after being staged at Arts House Melbourne and Carriageworks.

Brisbane theatre, cabaret and social activism collective Polytoxic will premiere their new show Demolition. Known for their hyper-visual style, the troupe is aiming to reclaim the male-dominated places such as construction sites as safe spaces for women. The play’s tag line: “Wolf whistle. We dare you.”

Brisbane-based artist collective The Good Room will premiere Let’s Be Friends Furever at the Brisbane Powerhouse, which incorporates video interviews with dog owners and real dogs woven into a dog park setting on stage, exploring “the indelible contract between pet and person and how we imprint on those we love”.

Ilbijerri Theatre

Heart is a Wasteland, Ilbijerri Theatre. Photo supplied

Queensland’s Finest: A Trio of Talent will see conductor Dane Lam and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra joined on stage at the QPAC Concert Hall by pianist Jayson Gillham, who will play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4. There will also be work by Richard Strauss and a new composition by young Brisbane composer Sebastian Lingane.

Opera singer and songwriter Jessica Hitchcock, whose family hails from Saibai in the Torres Strait and Papua New Guinea, will perform Songs That Made Me at the Tivoli, in a partnership presentation with Opera Queensland. “Jessica is such a musically diverse artist spanning opera, country, jazz and pop,” says Bezzina.

Meanwhile, Bezzina says she has had an “a long love and relationship – purely professional” with Lawrence English, “an extraordinary sound artist and composer” who normally works internationally. His latest work for the festival, Burning Piano, is literally a piano that burns constantly for five hours at a time. It is the concept of Annea Lockwood, whose first piano burning was on the Thames in London.

“The audience will sit around a wonderful industrial space, and you can sit for the whole duration, listening to the sound that the piano makes whilst it’s being burnt, as the strings pop,” says Bezzina. “It’s very conceptual but sits beautifully within a festival context.”

The 2021 Brisbane Festival runs 3–25 September