Look out for an underwater concert, Australian Brandenburg Orchestra in Rembrandt Live, and US satirist Randy Rainbow.

Wesley Enoch has announced the programme for his second Sydney Festival, which opens on January 6. The opening night honours are shared by Wayne McGregor’s dazzlingly staged dance piece Tree of Codes, an underwater concert by Danish Group Between Music called Aquasonic, and the return of “boylesque” group Briefs in their new show Close Encounters.

On top of those, the latest Circus Oz show Model Citizens will already be playing in Parramatta, as will the play My Name is Jimi at Belvoir. With the Meriton Festival Village in Hyde Park also in full swing, the Festival will get off to a flying start.

Tree of Codes has just had a season at the Melbourne Festival. Read the Limelight review here. A collaboration between British choreographer Wayne McGregor, Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson and UK musician Jamie xx, there’s not a lot to connect with emotionally but the staging is stunning and the dancing is sensational.

Between Music’s Aquasonic. Photograph © Charlotta de Miranda

Aquasonic, which will be performed at Carriageworks, features five musicians who submerge themselves in five large aquariums to play custom-made instruments and sing – all entirely underwater. Enoch has called the haunting and yet melodic music that emerges “human whale music”.

Meanwhile at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra will perform amongst the 17th-century Dutch paintings in the exhibition Rembrandt and the Dutch golden age: masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum. Just as Sydney Dance Company did last year with Nude Live, Rembrandt Live will see the musicians respond to the paintings around them. Directed by John Bell, with musical curation by the ABO’s Paul Dyer, Rembrandt Live will feature music from the era explored in the exhibition – a time when Dutch society was flourishing.

Rembrandt Live. Photograph © Pedro Greig

Music and architecture will come together in the Seidler Series, which will feature a series of talks and concerts hosted in and inspired by some of the buildings of Australia’s most famous modernist architecture Harry Seidler.

The Goldner String Quartet performs Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák at the Rose Seidler House in Wahroonga; Grammy Award-winning Estonian vocal ensmeble Vox Clamants celebrates the music of Arvo Pärt in the Cove Apartments Sydney; and innovative Icelandic pianist, multi-instrumentalist and composer Davíð þór jónsson plays Bach and his own original compositions at the Harry and Penelope Seidler House in Killara.

At the Seidler Penthouse in North Sydney, Estonian violinist and singer Maarja Nuut reworks Baltic folk, while cellist Karim Wasfi (the former chief conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, who is famous for playing his cello amid the destruction after bomb blasts) and virtuoso Iraqi oud player Rahim AlHaj play together, uniting traditional and contemporary classical music from the East and West.

The Guangdong National Orchestra of China will perform at the Sydney Opera House, playing classical Cantonese, Chaozhou and Guangdong Han music on instruments such as the pipa, the ruan and the erhu. The festival will also feature a 100 Guitar Orchestra performing Rhys Chatham’s A Crimson Grail. Chatham is an American-born, French-based composer, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist who is best known for his “guitar orchestra” compositions. He made his name mixing minimalist classical music with the guitar-driven energy of punk music in New York in the late 1970s, and has been writing epic compositions for increasingly large guitar ensembles since that time.

The Guandong Chinese Orchestra. Photograph courtesy of Wu Promotion

His work sits at the intersection between contemporary classical composition and provocative late 20th-century music. The rarely performed A Crimson Grail, which premiered in Paris in 2005 and was performed in New York a few years later, is regarded as one of his best pieces.

The centrepiece of the theatre programme is the renowned US company The Wooster Group, which will make its Sydney debut with The Town Hall Affair – a theatrical reimagining of the 1971 documentary Town Bloody Hall, which captured a raucous debate between Norman Mailer and leading feminists including Germaine Greer, played by Maura Tierney (ER, The Affair), Jill Johnston and Diana Trilling. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, co-founder of the experimental troupe, the play combines live performance of real-life dialogue along with video footage from the documentary.

Reviewing it in New York in May this year, The New York Times called it a “very timely and time-bending new mixed-media piece that’s churning up decades of sexual discontent” and a “witty and deeply stimulating exercise in cultural archive-diving”.

From the UK comes Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles. A co-production between Fuel, the National Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse, the play arrives direct from a sell-out season at London’s National Theatre. For generations, African men have gathered at the barber – a place where they can safely let off steam – to talk shop, family, race, music and sport. The play takes a fly-on-the-wall look at what goes on in six barber shops over the course of one day in London, Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra, where the barbers and their clients are all watching a soccer match on television (when Chelsea beat Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final in April 2012).

Barber Shop Chronicles. Photograph © Marc Brenner

Conversations include father-and-son relationships, the subversive power of pidgin English, and the supposed differences between black and white women. Barber Shop Chronicles got four and five star reviews in London where it was described as exuberant, invigorating, joyous, heart-warming and laugh-out-loud funny.

The Festival theatre programme also includes two plays from Queensland Theatre (where Enoch was Artistic Director prior to joining Sydney Festival): The Wider Earth and My Name is Jimi. The Wider Earth, which is a co-production between QT and Dead Puppet Society, is a visually stunning reimagining of Charles Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle with original music by Lior and Tony Buchen. Written by David Morton, it uses puppets to dramatise the wildlife that inspired Darwin’s theory of evolution.

When it premirered in Brisbane in 2016, The Australian called it “astonishingly original”, saying: “Here is the most ambitious new play imaginable, recounting in epic form a scientific voyage of discovery that would, in the end, rock the foundations of religion and revolutionise scientific thought.”

In My Name is Jimi, Torres Strait Islander actor Jimi Bani is joined on stage by his mother and grandmother, two of his brothers and his son for an evening of music, dance and storytelling. “One of our most beautiful First Nation actors, Jimi Bani also happens to be the ninth chief of Mabuiag Island in the Torres Strait and so this is him and his family in a very beautiful theatrical gathering inviting us into their world. But behind it is this big story about how knowledge is passed from one generation to the next,” said Belvoir Artistic Director Eamon Flack announcing its inclusion in Belvoir’s 2018 season.

The Sydney Festival will also present My Urrwai by Torres Strait Islander dancer/choreographer Ghenoa Gela at Belvoir and Tribunal at Carriageworks, billed as the Australian Truth and Reconciliation Tribunal we’ve never had. Artists, lawyers, community leaders and activists put Australia’s colonial past and present-day refugee political on trial in a powerful piece of political theatre.

Backbone. Photograph supplied

Meanwhile, there is a strong focus on circus and physical theatre. Parramatta will host Circus City featuring a number of circus shows including Model Citizens, Circus Oz’s playful satire on Australian “values” which asks if Australia is stll the “lucky country”, Backbone, an acclaimed production from acrobatic troupe Gravity & Other Myths, and Highly Sprung from Legs on the Wall, performed on a multi-level outdoor trampoline.

The Meriton Festival Village in Hyde Park will feature a wide range of performances in the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent including the all-male “boylesque” show Briefs: Close Encounters, which follows the success of Briefs: The Second Coming at the 2017 Sydney Festival, and RIOT, an Irish variety show with a line-up incluidng renowned drag queen Panti Bliss.

In something of a coup, Sydney Festival will also present Randy Rainbow (real name apparently) in the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent. The US comedian has become a viral sensation with his brilliantly funny, witty, razor-sharp satires of the Trump administration performed to showtunes.

Randy Rainbow. Photograph supplied.

Australia’s favourite “kamikaze” cabaret diva, Meow Meow, performs her latest show Pandemonium at the Sydney Opera House. Fresh from a season in London with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, she will perform here with the Symphony Symphony Orchestra conducted by Iain Grandage.

The popular About an Hour programme returns to Carriageworks with a line-up that includes Wild Bore, which was a big hit earlier in the year at Melbourne’s Malthouse. Wild Bore features three female comedians Zoë Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott who turn the tables on the reviewers with a hilarious take-down of arts criticism. About an Hour also includes, among other things, dancers Narelle Benjamin and Paul White performing together in Cella; an outrageous one-woman play from the UK about female sexuality called Fleabag; The Daisy Theatre from Ronnie Burkett’s Theatre of Marionettes from Canada, and the world premiere of a work by renowned Australian physical theatre company Force Majeure called You Animal, You about what makes us human in a desensitised age.


The Sydney Festival runs January 6 – 28.

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