A radical new staging of John Cassavetes’ cult movie Opening Night, starring Isabelle Adjani, two concerts by award-winning UK choir Tenebrae, a concert of modern re-arrangements of rare First Nations songs by Canadian composer and musician Jeremy Dutcher, and a reboot of Reg Livermore’s famous 1970s cabaret show Betty Blokk-Buster, performed by Josh Quong Tart, are among the shows programmed by Sydney Festival Artistic Director Wesley Enoch for 2020, along with the previously announced Aboriginal musical Bran Nue Dae.
The centrepiece of the Festival, which runs from January 8 to 26, is the exclusive Australian season of Opening Night, adapted from Cassavetes’ 1977 film by French auteur Cyril Teste. Cassavetes’s film starred Gena Rowlands as Myrtle, a middle-aged actor on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Haunted by the death of a young fan killed in a car accident just outside the theatre, and struggling with the misogynistic theatre world around her, her life begins to blur with the theatre role she is playing. Myrtle is played on stage by French star Isabelle Adjani. Teste uses smartly integrated live video in his adaptation. Staged in New York in September, The New York Times described it as “an elegant, streamlined stage remix” and praised Adjani’s final moments as “wonderfully loose and tantalizing” but felt that the adaptation misses the opportunity to tune into the #MeToo moment.
Opening Night. Photograph © Simon Gosselin
In announcing his 2020 program, Enoch drew attention to the Festival’s track record in commissioning new work. “The notion of small companies engaging in the next step up – you think about Force Majeure or Legs on the Wall or Indigenous work – Sydney Festival has been part of that conversation for a very long time. The Major Festivals Initiative has been a very key thing and at the heart of that is a collaborative way of working, to help artists reach more audiences at a scale of work that they couldn’t do on their own. So festivals have become this cultural accelerator for the Australian voice, and Sydney Festival is part of that. So, commissions are big,” he tells Limelight.
Black Ties, for example, is a new work commissioned by the Major Festivals Initiative and AsiaTOPA. A co-production between Ilbijerri Theatre Company and New Zealand’s Te Rēhia Theatre, it centres on the wedding of a Māori woman and an Aboriginal man. “I keep saying it’s the First Nations Dimboola,” says Enoch. “It’s two families coming together and all the cultural tensions that that means. There some beautiful comedy in it, and there’s a live band that’s going to play wedding songs, so it will be a lot of fun.”
Other theatre shows include Anthem, written by Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves and Christos Tsiolkas; Dead Puppet Society’s Laser Beak Man; Black Cockatoo, a new play by Geoffrey Atherden created for the Ensemble Theatre in association with Sydney Festival, which tells the true story of First Nations cricketer Johnny Mullagh; and The Visitors by Muruwari writer Jane Harrison, produced by Moogahlin Performing Arts, which takes us back to Gadigal land in 1788 where a group of seven senior law men discuss whether they should allow the boats to land or not.
Ronnie Burkett in Forget Me Not. Photograph© Dahlia Katz
Canadian master puppeteer Ronnie Burkett – a regular visitor to Australia who performed The Daisy Theatre at the 2018 Sydney Festival – returns with his new show Forget Me Not. “He is going to be performing for only 100 people at a time and he has designed hand puppets for every audience member so they are observing as a puppet during the whole show,” says Enoch. “He goes from wearing this big costume where his body becomes the whole puppet, down to the very end of the show where he has just got a little head on one finger. It’s the idea of stripping away puppets and artifice to just leave the essence of puppetry. This is his response to Trump’s America where the truth is contentious, writing is now illegal, and putting pen to paper is an act of defiance.”
The Sydney Festival will also present a work in progress by S. Shakthidharan who wrote the award-winning Counting and Cracking, which premiered at the 2018 Sydney Festival before going to the Adelaide Festival. “Hopefully by 2021 we will see Counting and Cracking touring nationally and overseas. It’s a big undertaking but it was a show at the right time reflecting the community’s thoughts on migration and the act of seeking asylum in another country,” says Enoch
In the music program, world renowned a capella choir Tenebrae, conducted by former King’s singer Nigel Short, will perform two programs featuring the dark, expressive music of Tomás Luis de Victoria in Masterworks of the Renaissance, and modern miniatures by Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst and others in Music of the Spheres, with mezzo soprano Martha McLorinan as soloist.
Tenebrae. Photograph © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Jeremy Dutcher, a Canadian First Nations classically trained baritone, pianist and composer, will perform post-classical piano rearrangements of rare turn-of-the-century archival wax recordings of First Nations songs. Liza Lim’s innovative work Atlas of the Sky will be performed by Speak Percussion and soprano Jessica Aszodi, and Ireland-based Australian composer Robert Curgenven will perform the Australian premiere of Bronze Lands (Talite Cré-Umha), a new work for pipe organ in Sydney Town Hall. “You lie on the floor and he’ll play the organ which will be amplified through speakers and reverberate through your body,” says Enoch.
Romances Inciertos, Un Autre Orlando, from choreographer-dancer- singer François Chaignaud and his collaborator Nino Laisne is billed as an opera-ballet love letter to Spanish culture. Performed by Chaignaud and four period-instrument musicians on bandoneon, theorbo/baroque guitar, viol, and percussion, the show is a cocktail of Baroque music, flamenco and gender play consisting of three acts. “First comes the Doncella Guerrera, a medieval figure which leads us on the trail of a young woman who left for war disguised as a man; then Federico Garcia Lorca’s San Miguel, a voluptuous archangel and an object of devotion; and finally the Tarara, an Andalusian gypsy, mystic and seductive, who carries the secret of her androgyny,” as Festival Avignon described it.
Buŋgul: Gurrumul’s Mother’s Buŋgul, Gurrumul’s Grandmother’s Buŋgul, Gurrumul’s Manikay is a tribute to the musical legacy of Dr G Yunupingu, with a celebration of his final album Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) performed with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. “Buŋgul was another event that we commissioned,” says Enoch.
Colossus. Photograph © Mark Gambino
Among the dance works are the highly acclaimed Colossus from the Stephanie Lake Company, the world premiere of The Rivoli, which reimagines Western Sydney’s favourite dance hall from the early 1930s to the late 1960s, and a free site-specific work called Encounter from Form Dance Projects featuring 16 young dancers and 48 musicians from the Western Sydney Youth Orchestra, will be performed in Parramatta’s Prince Alfred Square.
In another burst of youthfulness, Australia’s world-famous national youth circus, The Flying Fruit Fly Circus, will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a show called Time Flies.
Meanwhile, Australian theatre history will be revisited when Josh Quong Tart performs Betty Blokk-Buster Reimagined, produced by Redline Productions, in which Quong Tart plays Betty and some of the other fabulous, eccentric characters created by Reg Livermore in his legendary cabaret show, Betty Blokk Buster Follies, which premiered at the Balmain Bijou in 1975. The show will run in the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent throughout the Festival.
The Festival ends on Australia Day with a wide range of free family events. The day before, for those who would like to reflect on Australia’s Indigenous heritage, the Festival will present The Vigil, which returns to Barangaroo for a fireside family event of performance and reflection, with Archie Roach and other guests appearing live. In the lead-up to The Vigil, a smoking ceremony and corroboree led by Elders will cleanse the city with people invited to join the Procession from 5pm. “We will be going through the city and smoking it as a ritual act before the 26th of January,” says Enoch. “About 4000 people came last year and we think it’s growing.”