Theatre is listening to stories in the company of strangers. So says actor William Zappa, in his introduction to The Iliad Out Loud, a nine-hour adaptation of the epic tale of the Trojan War. He writes for four actors who read the story, script in hand, from within a white chalk circle. Two musicians, percussionist Michael Askill and oud player Hamed Sadeghi, accompany them. The Iliad Out Loud (which premiered at Sydney Festival in 2019) is part of the three-day culture binge that is Four Winds.

The Iliad Out Loud at the Four Winds Festival. Photograph © Ben Marden

For Zappa, the power of Homer’s The Iliad is in its ritual re-telling, not just around the campfire or the kitchen table, but in a public setting, amongst strangers. It shifts the emphasis of performative story-telling away from stage, and the actor into a space somewhere between the actor and the story and the audience and the reaction and the entire shared experience.

Esoteric stuff, perhaps, but when you sit in a paddock under a star-flecked sky, listening to the conversation of gods and men for three hours, your thoughts tend towards the sublime. It’s not just the performances, which are wonderful. It’s also the place, the surroundings, the people beside you, and the sense of solidarity as the temperature drops and the ground grows damp. This is theatre for the committed but the rewards are great.

Moments of sublimity are there for the taking at Four Winds. The beautiful setting and natural soundscape – think bellbirds over gentle breezes through the mighty spotted gums – envelops us all, reminding us that no matter how exquisite or arresting the performances are, they are still just guests, travellers passing through. Many of the travellers create their own sublime moments. There’s the Goldner String Quartet playing the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ from Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 132; Timo-Valve Veikke playing unaccompanied Bach; and Julian Smiles and Dimity Hall weaving their silken lines of melody in the world premiere of Ross Edwards’ Haunted Spring. And on Easter Sunday, the Muffat Collective make time stand still as they exchange Baroque love songs with Hamed Sadeghi as he improvises on the Persian oud and tar.

Just as the setting and the ambient noise of the Four Winds site is as essential element of the festival, so too is amplification. Moments like those described above are only possible through Jim Atkins’ sound design and engineering, which is honest and unobtrusive for the most part, making performances sound live and intimate wherever you are on the site.

Lior performing Compassion at the Four Winds Festival. Photograph © David Rogers Photography

While the annual Easter weekend festival has always been centred on music, mostly classical, new Artistic Director Lindy Hume has interpolated theatre, poetry and dance into the mix. Aside from Homer’s epic, there is a new version of Cinco, a gravity-defying showcase for seven members of Sydney Dance Company, choreographed by Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela. The liquid momentum of the dancers is set against the fury of Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera String Quartet, performed live-and-kicking by members of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Fellowship.

Fellowship members get their turn centre stage, playing recent new music from Missy Mazzoli, Caroline Shaw and Australian composers Natalie Nicolas and Holly Harrison. Shaw’s Entr’acte String Quartet is a compelling riff on a Haydn string quartet, while Holly Harrison’s Jabberwock is a playful mix of words and music. There is new music on Sunday as well, including Cuban composer Tania León’s glittering Homentage, conjured up by piano virtuoso Stefan Cassomenos.

Barragga Bay is on Yuin Country and the voices of local artists are woven throughout the festival program with deliberate and thoughtful design. Poetry gets a platform on all three days: we hear poems from local poets, including an arresting meditation on place written and read by Raechelle Kennedy.

Two significant performances frame the three day experience: Songs from Yuin Country, a celebration of local language and music; and Compassion, the song cycle developed by composer Nigel Westlake and singer/songwriter Lior, using Hebrew and Arabic texts. Like The Iliad, the power of these performances lies in the meeting place, between Greek and Trojans, Judaism and Islam, Yuin and non-indigenous cultures, between performers and audience, between friends and strangers.

The Djinama Yilaga Choir at the Four Winds Festival. Photograph © David Rodgers Photography

Compassion brings together the Sydney Symphony Fellowship, the Goldner Quartet and the other all-stars from the past two days to form a band of virtuosi, ready to rip into Westlake’s fascinating score. Over this Lior floats his irresistible, ever-changing voice in a moving meditation on the power of love. Sublime? Yes, indeed.

Bangan, Barra barra, Mirriwarr / Things are looking up showcases the Djinama Yilaga Choir, singing songs they have created in their own language, with some of the extraordinary musicians who have travelled the world before making the hinterland village of Candelo their home. At the climax of the set, the choir joins in with Melanie Horsnell’s song, Sugar and White Men, translated into their language. It’s an electrifying moment, made more intense when you notice that the Candelo line-up have also switched from English to Yuin in a heartwarming expression of solidarity. Strangers become friends.

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