In planning a festival program, Wesley Enoch says that he doesn’t set out with a theme in mind. “Themes come from the artists who bring the work in,” says Enoch, Artistic Director of the Sydney Festival.

Looking at his line-up for the Sydney Festival in 2019, and the over-arching ideas that have emerged, he says that “the indigenous program is a central point [taking in the idea of] the conversation around January 26, what it means and whether to change the date, and coupling that with what is coming our way in 2020 with the James Cook 250th anniversary. There is a whole conversation about our connection to places and our indigenous heritage here. There’s the notion too of what I call seeking safety, be it refugees or migrants or asylum seekers, and the story of finding safe spaces in relationships, the whole #MeToo and #TimesUp movement – where is the safety in public spaces? – so there are a few projects that respond to that,” says Enoch.

“And the third kind of overarching theme that seems to have developed is this notion of collectivism or collective cultural ambition or working together, because it’s the 50th anniversary of the moon landing next year. I see the moon landing not [the result] of individualism but of collectivism. Everyone was part of that dream and ambition. You say ‘where were you in July 1969?’ and if you were alive there is a connection to that date because it kept us all together and it was one of the great technological boons that happened without having war, cold war yes, but not massive loss of life. So they are some overarching things of the Festival that in themselves are little ideas that people either get or don’t get depending on how they go.”


La Passion de Simone

Sydney Chamber Opera will perform Kaija Saariaho’s oratorio, with a libretto by Amin Maalouf. Subtitled “a musical journey in 15 stations”, it centres on the life and writing of French philosopher, mystic and political activist Simone Weil and is conceived using the Passion Play tradition with episodes of her life linked to the Stations of the Cross. The piece had its world premiere in 2006 directed by Peter Sellars. Finnish-born Saariaho created a chamber version in 2013. Imara Savage directs a new production here.

“Saariaho has done work at the Met [in New York] but in Australia we don’t get to see work of hers at this scale,” says Enoch. “I’ve got a lot of time for Sydney Chamber Opera [and the production] is big, staged in Bay 17 at Carriageworks.”

Beware of Pity

Beware of Pity. Photograph © Gianmarco Bresaola

Schaubühne Berlin presents its first play directed by Simon McBurney of renowned UK company Complicité. The production is a bold, adventurous, sexually charged staging of Stefan Zweig’s 1939 novel, which was written when the Jewish writer was exiled in England from Austria. A portrait of Europe stumbling towards disintegration, it tells the story of young lieutenant Anton Hofmiller, stationed on the Hungarian border in 1914, who is invited to the castle of the wealthy Lajos Kekesfalva. At a party he asks Kekesfalva’s daughter Edith to dance, not realising she is paralysed. Feeling terrible about it, Hofmiller spends time with Edith and she falls obsessively in love with him. He promises to marry her when she is recovered, hoping to convince her to try a special cure. However, when she discovers that his love is based on pity, her delight turns to despairing rage and she takes her own life. Overwhelmed by guilt, Hoffmiller is deployed to the First World War.

Presented in German, with surtitles, Beware of Pity was described by The Guardian as “an astonishing ensemble production” in which a “story of great psychological perception becomes a prophetic vision of a civilisation on the verge of collapse… With dazzling virtuosity, McBurney and his team evoke a vanished world.” “The Schaübuhne are really up there at the moment and it’s interesting to see Simon in that environment,” says Enoch.

Counting and Cracking

Co-commissioned with CAIAF and Adelaide Festival, and co-produced by Belvoir and Co-Curious, Counting and Cracking is an epic play about Australian-Sri Lankans. Written by S. Shakthidharan and directed by Eamon Flack, it features 16 actors playing four generations of a family, and moves between Colombo and Pendle Hill. It begins on the banks of the Georges River where Radha and her son Siddhartha release the ashes of Radha’s mother – their final connection to the past and their struggles in Sri Lanka. And then a call from Colombo brings the past spinning back to life.

The play will be staged in Sydney Town Hall. “We’ve chosen that venue because it’s a site in this city of citizenship ceremonies and public gatherings. For me this is one of these very large scale works that are intrinsically Australian about a migration story, about why you came to this country, about what this country has to offer you in terms of security, safety, a place to build a new identity if that’s what you need,” says Enoch. “These kinds of projects don’t get up unless you get a company like Belvoir and festivals and CAIAF involved. It needs this collaborative approach.”

Shànghai MiMi

Shànghai MiMi. Photograph © Yan Xiaohuo

A new commission for Sydney Festival, Shànghai MiMi will have its world premiere at the Riverside Theatre, Parramatta. Moira Finucane will direct a cast of Chinese acrobats and musicians, most of them from China but some living in Australia. Set in 1930s Shanghai, the cabaret-type show captures the heady melting pot of jazz, acrobats and burlesque at the time which earned the city the moniker of the ‘Paris of the East’.


Described by Sydney Festival as “a magical meditation on safety and shelter by award-winning theatre performer, director and absurdist Geoff Sobelle”, HOME was recently staged at the Brisbane Festival. Sobelle performed the hugely popular The Object Lesson at Sydney Festival in 2016. In HOME an empty stage is gradually turned into a two-storey house.

“A lot of illusion work happens so there is nothing on stage and then it all gets built. But there’s also this idea of building a space in the theatre that everyone feels part of and connected to,” says Enoch. “So at times he brings audience members up to occupy the house and take part in the everyday rituals that we have at home – birthday parties and breakfast, and things that we all know how to do. It’s a really gorgeous piece.”


Adam Lazarus in Daughter. Photograph © John Launer

“Adam Lazarus has created this work about the relationship of men and women from daughter to wife and others, but it’s done in such a way that when I saw it [in Vancouver] two thirds of the women walked out of it,” says Enoch. “They felt confronted, they felt triggered, they felt that it was abusive. Almost all the men in the audience went, ‘this is the internal dialogue that men have about our appetites, our sexual appetites, our competitive appetites, all of these kinds of things’. It’s a broad generalisation to say it but there was a tension down gender lines, the passions were high. It’s had two star reviews and five star reviews sitting side by side. In a world where we are talking about toxic masculinity, male privilege in terms of ownership of things, this is an interesting touch point for that.”

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story

A klezmer-folk story of two Romanian Jews seeing refuge in Canada, it stars Ben Caplan, who performed at the 2014 Sydney Festival. “He’s a fantastic Jewish musician who works a lot in klezmer,” says Enoch. “It’s a story of migration from 20th century Romania through to Canada, using that also as a metaphor for migration patterns even now 100 years later. It’s mostly music but there’s a little bit of acting scene work, and the songs tell the story of the journey. There’s a fantastic moment when he is singing a song then talks about this knock on the door. Is it someone to rob you? Is it someone who needs help? And then there is a note that gets passed under the door [saying] ‘please help me, please let me in.’ Do you trust it? Do you not trust it? There is this whole complex relationship to the idea of the ‘other’ Yes it could be Jewish migrants from 100 years ago or it could be Sudanese migrants from 10 years ago.”


Man With The Iron Neck. Photograph © Brett Boardman

This year’s indigenous program includes, among other pieces, Man With The Iron Neck, a powerful new work from Ursula Yovich and Legs on the Wall about a family grappling with life after suicide, Biladurang, an intimate solo work by Joel Bray, performed to an audience in a hotel room, the biennial Yellamundie National First Peoples Playwriting Festival, and a co-commission called Spinifex Gum in which Marliya, a choir of indigenous women from Cairns perform songs by Felix Riebl and Ollie McGill of The Cat Empire at the Sydney Opera House alongside Briggs and Peter Garrett.

Also look out for…

The theatre program also includes The Iliad, William Zappa’s sweeping nine-hour rendition of Homer’s Iliad. Dance pieces include Dust from Dancenorth, first seen at the Brisbane Festival, and One Infinity, which premiered at the Melbourne International Dance Festival. Directed by Gideon Obarzanek, One Infinity uses dancers from Dancenorth and Beijing Dance Theatre and invites audiences members to be part of the show. Masters of Modern SOUND offers an after-dark journey through the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s Masters of modern art from the Hermitage exhibition with a live soundtrack provided by sonic artists. Apollo 11 investigates 11 heroes of space travel through three-metre-high astronaut models at Barangaroo South, and Moon Drops offers festival-goers the chance to stop, roll and jump on super-sized water-filled droplets.