Adelaide Festival: From Roman Tragedies To Faunacation

Three days into the new week and, in Adelaide, it feels like the circus has left town. After four hyperactive weeks, the Fringe, manifest in every nook, cranny, park and temporary performing space, has dismantled, Writers Week has had its seven days, Womadelaide is long gone from Botanic Park, the ubiquitous orange Clipsal 500 road barriers and many tonnes of scaffolding have gradually defenestrated and, last weekend David Sefton’s excellent Adelaide Festival also came to its conclusion.

His second program has had many successes and, improving strongly on his debut last year, has raised high hopes for 2015. This year saw a number of his signatures repeated – especially with avant-garde and coterie contemporary music, although the dance program was thinner and for some, marquee event, the Israeli Batsheva Company was a mixed experience.

The theatre offerings – one person shows: SKaGen’s BigMouthAn Iliad, and the loquaciously witty, cult film maker, John Waters, drew warm responses as did local productions  -State Theatre’s The Seagull, Windmill Theatre’s exuberantly creative Trilogy of Matthew Whittet plays (including the now widely celebrated School Dance) and Blackout, the intriguingly surreal theatre/dance work from Stone/Castro.

The standout, of course, was the Roman Tragedies, all six hours of adapted Shakespeare commandingly performed with multimedia virtuosity by Toneelgroep Amsterdam. It often only takes one great event to make a milestone festival and, like Cricot 2’s Dead Class in 1978, Pina Bausch in 1982, The Rustaveli Company in 1986, and Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata in 1988, the Roman Tragedies has become an Adelaide Festival you-had-to-be-there classic.

Sefton’s program this time also had a cornerstone musical event – the impressive four night residency by New York composer and musician John Zorn. Last year’s festival theme, built around the Brooklyn, New York  Brassland recording scene, was an interesting but unsatisfactory mishmash. John Zorn has been quite a different matter. It is hard to think of a more perfect focus, a musician and composer so prolific and diverse that he can become a festival all of his own.

Gathering 37  musicians, as well as the Adelaide Symphony around him, Zorn played four nights of widely divergent compositions, all his own – classical works with orchestra , a triple bill made up of cinema themes, the free jazz octet Cobra, and a trio enticingly named Bladerunner, then there was Zorn@60, a mixed bill including vocal compositions reprised from his New York birthday celebration, and, opening the series, his Masada Marathon.

His Masada Book dates back to the early 1990’s when Zorn set about writing 100 compositions based on Jewish and klezmer themes. Like all of Zorn’s energetic enterprises, the project expanded to over 200 pieces for various instrumentations – some of which featured in his opening night four hour marathon.

From the opening hard bop set from the Masada Quartet, featuring trumpeter Dave Douglas and Zorn spraying unbelievably beautiful discords from his saxophone, to the solo recitals on cello (Erik Friedlander) and piano (Uri Caine) it was a remarkable night of music. Mycal, four women vocalists, performed dazzlingly intricate a capella works, keyboard luminary John Medeski’s trio played jazz fusion (with the brilliant Kenny Woolesen on drums) and hardcore metal band Abraxas unleashed the kind of avant garde rock that Zorn has explored since his Naked City days in the 1980s.

None of this would have been so appealing if not for Zorn’s enthusiastic presence, constantly encouraging the musicians, beaming at their extraordinary accomplishment. When not performing himself, he often sat on a chair between the musicians using what seemed like Kermit the Frog hand gestures to conduct, modulate and co-ordinate bursts of solo invention from guitarist and former Lounge Lizard Marc Ribot, violinist Mark Feldman, favourite percussionist Cyro Baptista and electronics architect Ikue Mori.

Wandering the stage in a red t-shirt, camouflage pants and combat boots, Zorn looked like more like a roadie, or a thirty-something programmer from Silicon Valley. But he is 60 and he is a major American composer whose commitment drew some of the finest contemporary musicians to perform here. David Sefton marvelled to me that prominent producer and bassist Bill Laswell flew from Los Angeles just to play a 30 minute set. Zorn himself declared the festival the best he has ever attended. Well, he made it so, as Zorn fans who came from all over the country would heartily agree.

Theatre in the final week also finished strongly with an emphasis on visual invention. UK company, The Tiger Lillies, led by composer Martyn Jacques brought their piratical version of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner for a short season at Her Majesty’s.

Performing  18 songs, which use only fleetingly familiar scraps from Coleridge’s majestic narrative, this lugubrious trio – Jacques on accordion and piano, Adrian Stout, on bass and ethereal theremin,  and Mike Pickering on percussion – look like denizens from some kind of nautical clown hell. Face smeared in white, eyes reduced to black splodges, in his sometimes-trying near falsetto, Jacques grimly sings his mordant tale of the mariner who impulsively kills an albatross and brings doom and ruin on his ship and crew.

The Tigers Lillies stand behind a gauze curtain and in front of a large screen displaying the visual mastery of designer Mark Holthussen. Using a ragout of styles from 19th century pop-up books to sophisticated 3-D digital effects, the stage is swirling with foam crests and ice floes, seething with sea serpents, sirens, and vengeful storms, and unsettling us with the wraith like hologram realism of the ship’s crew and the Death Maiden. These figments of the mariner’s fevered imagination become startlingly our own.

Robert Lepage and his Ex Machina company are no strangers to the Adelaide Festival, his early work, The Dragon’s Trilogy, an epic set in Toronto, was a highlight to rival Peter Brook’s Mahabharata in the 1988 festival; equally memorable was the Seven Streams of the River Ota in Robyn Archer’s program a decade later. Needles and Opium is not a new Lepage work, it played in the Sydney Festival in 1992, but it has been substantially redesigned using current stage technology and now features actor  Marc Labreche in the roles previous performed by Lepage himself.

The needles and opium signify two very different artists – Miles Davis and Jean Cocteau. Always looking to intertwine the apparently unconnected, Lepage fastens on the year 1949 when  Davis went to Paris to perform for the first time and found, not the racist  harassment of the United States, but a café society of artists and intellectuals ready to greet and proclaim him. It was then that he met and fell in love with singer Juliette Greco, only to end the relationship because of the difficulties of a mixed race relationship in the US at that time.

In the same year Jean Cocteau, poet, film director (Beauty and the Beast, Orpheus) and opium addict, was making his journey in the opposite direction – from Paris to New York, a wildly mixed experience he wrote about in his published Letter to the Americans. There is a further link, and it is the heart of the play, and that is the fictional 1989 visit to Paris by a voice-over actor, Robert. He is in pain, trying to recover from the end of a relationship, but becoming increasingly paralysed by grief and self-doubt. Working on a documentary film about the star-crossed Greco and Davis triggers his breakdown.

The staging of Needles and Opium is spectacular. Performing in a large three sided cube which rotates at various vertiginous angles, the actors – Labreche as Robert and Cocteau, and dancer/acrobat Wellesley Robertson III, who represents Miles Davis – frequently use harnesses and elaborately angular  stage movements as the topsy turvy acting space is transformed by visual projections (including archival photos from the late 40s) which magically dress the set and then melt away to be replaced by further astonishing images.

It is a remarkable technical achievement and, it transpired, a high risk one. On first night a technical fault brought the performance to a halt around the 70 minute mark and the event was cancelled.  Labreche is excellent, especially as Robert, whose sadness and disorientation, tenderly written by Lepage, is genuinely depicted. The highly theatrical Cocteau is wittily played but with his heavy accent, the clipped delivery was at times difficult to follow.

Robertson has no speaking lines as Davis, Lepage imagines him, not so much In a Silent Way perhaps, but as the voice of jazz. Miming to trumpet solos (recreated by Craig L Pederson) the production reminds us of the majestic sounds of Miles Davis, not only The Birth of Cool and the bright fire of his bebop sound, but the personal tribulation in the making his brilliant film score for the aptly named Ascenseur pour L’echafaud – the Lift to the Scaffold.

Closing the festival was the whimsically disarming Green Porno (pictured above). Delivered as a lecture-with-illustrations by celebrated actor and former model, Isabella Rossellini, Green Porno is a funny and curiously informative probe into the hidden world of animal sexuality. Porno of course it is not – fauna-cation perhaps – rather it is a celebration of biodiversity and a robust reminder that Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection have much more to tell us than that anti-scientific oxymoron, intelligent design.

Using a series of short video features first made for Robert Redford’s Sundance TV channel, Rossellini, with a light wit and a touch of conspiracy with the women in the audience, describes the weird, elaborate, sometimes grandiose manifestations of male creature sexuality and the clever ways by which the female species can thwart unwanted or genetically undesirable consequences. So we learn, watching Rossellini, transmogrified in her comically animated films into a mother duck with passageways in her vaginas to sideline the sperm of unwanted suitors, a starfish cloning herself from a broken stem, a hermaphrodite snail and a blowfly laying eggs in a human skull. Assisted by her retractable tape measure  Rosselini also considers the penile dimensions of barnacles, gorillas, giraffes and blue whales and the gender bending versatility of the seahorse.

Standing at her lectern, Rossellini looks over her specs to inform us with both irony and scientific authority that  the natural world is to be treasured and marvelled at. And in response to the view that some human behaviour is “against nature” and for that reason to be condemned, she enthusiastically cites the bisexuality of dolphins and the sex-changing virtuosity of the crepidula fornicata. Green Porno is playing capital cities until March 26. It is a life lesson to enjoy.

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