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Adelaide Festival: Theatre, Local and Large

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The Adelaide Festival has been open for a week and already the theatre program has been terrific. First up was the State Theatre Company’s fine production, directed by Geordie Brookman, of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. Hilary Bell’s brisk, unfussy adaptation set the tone for a lively, accessible version of this masterwork. Staged in the company’s scenic workshop, lit and designed by the always inventive Geoff Cobham, Brookman navigates the wild mood swings between comedy and heartbreak which make the play both rich and daunting.
Xavier Samuel, in his first mainstage work since his busy film career began, is memorable as the highly-strung Konstantin – part Hamlet, part emo – who, like everyone else in the play, is hopelessly in love with the wrong person. In his case it is Nina (Lucy Fry) who only has eyes for the novelist Trigorin.
Rosalba Clemente and Renato Musolino play Arkadina and Trigorin, the overbearing drop-in Moscow celebrities who leave angst in their wake, while the locals, trying to keep a grip on their disappointments, are vividly presented by Paul Blackwell (Sorin), Terence Crawford (Dorn) and Matilda Bailey (Masha) among others in this strong cast. With music links on ukulele from Matthew Gregan (who also plays Medvedenko) this study in human folly, regret and pathos is another success for State under Geordie Brookman’s direction.
Adelaide’s Windmill Theatre has been on a winning run in the past several years, especially with success in the 2012 Festival and then extended interstate seasons of the much-loved School Dance.  Festival director David Sefton has this year programmed a Trilogy for Windmill – return performances of Fugitive (which debuted in 2010) and School Dance, as well as premiering Girl Asleep. All three plays are by Matthew Whittet whose zany, closely-observed studies of the vagaries of adolescence have been expertly staged by Windmill director  Rosemary Myers, in league with the unmistakable 70s kitsch design signatures of Jonathan Oxlade, Richard Vabre’s technicolour lighting and the retro-pop and cinematic soundscapes conjured by audio wizards, Luke Smiles and Andrew Howard.
Girl Asleep, loosely based on the Sleeping Beauty fable, is about Greta Driscoll, turning 15 and in misery that life isn’t as simple as plastic horses and music boxes. Instead she has parents who are Martians (actually they are pretty alien) and friends – like the Hunter twins – who are trolls. Even very best friend Elliot gets on her wick.
Ellen  Steele is excellent as Greta, by turns demure and turbulent, she is a convincing mid-teen. Eamon Farren is likeable as the constant Elliot, Jude Henshall bristly as the fractious sister Genevieve who’s nuts about Serge Gainsbourg and, as Conrad, the father, Matthew Whittet is a well-meaning dag in fawn shorts and mutton chops. Amber McMahon, a sensation in School Dance, covers a farrago of hilarious comic characters from mother Janet to Greta the Finnish pen friend. Girl Asleep is vibrant and fun, but it also a touching account of a young girl realising that her childhood is now a world elsewhere.
Fugitive, Whittet’s fresh take on the Robin Hood legend has the hero (Eamon Farren) returning to his jilted ex-girlfriend Marian (Kate Cheel) and best friend Wil  (Whittet at his earnest best). With new recruit, bovver boy, Little John (the irresistibly funny Patrick Graham) the merry crew do battle with the lady Sheriff Marty (Carmel Johnson) and her wicked henchmen, depicted here as Star Wars Stormtroopers.
Things get complicated when Robin starts to enjoy this droogy ultra-violence rather much and, as in all good legends, the return of a king-like person (Danielle Catanzariti) is needed to restore order. Fugitive is a rollicking tale with fights, dancing, slapstick and jokes. This production is another Windmill turn that has audiences gawping and grinning.
Blackout, commissioned for this festival and performed in the AC Arts Main Theatre, is the latest work from Stone/Castro. Eight people are heading out to sea to celebrate a wedding but, in this volatile production, the Love Boat quickly turns into a Ship of Fools. The captain of the vessel (Vincent Crowley) predicts that it will be a special occasion for the happy couple, but perhaps nothing quite  this special.
The bridesmaid (Jo Stone), sister to the bride, is drunk, the father of the bride (Stephen Sheehan) has returned after five years in an Indian ashram professing inner contentment but radiates only anger and intolerance, a visiting Portuguese dancer (John Romao) is smitten with the groom, and the waitress (Charlotte Rose) has a psychotic hatred of dogs and ridicules the musician, known as Desert Lizard (Nathan O’Keefe) who spends so long introducing himself he never gets round to performing.
While this work has a strong colloquially Australian text, its influences and references are those of the European avant garde – the surrealism of Bunuel, the absurdism of Ionesco. This could be an Ocker version of The Exterminating Angel, or the not-so-discreet charm of the lower bourgeoisie. It is abrasive,disconcerting, and chaotic. The groom (Alisdair Macindoe) is a quivering wreck – his seizure like dance sequence is extraordinary to watch, as is the concluding solo by the bride (Larissa McGowan)  lying in a shallow pool of water. Meanwhile the wedding party clambers ignominiously back to shore.
Director and writer, Paulo Castro and his collaborator Jo Stone have created a work that is macabrely funny as well as painfully confronting. Sometimes the pace of the production is lost but that only adds to the excruciation. Blackout is a provocative work, skilfully performed with an ominous set and lighting by Morag Cook and Ben Flett. It is a voyage into perilous waters in more ways than one, but its uneasy effects remain long after landfall.
Festivals often have a centrepiece work and this year it is undoubtedly the Netherlands company, Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s extraordinary production Roman Tragedies (pictured above). Director Ivo van Hove has taken three of Shakespeare’s Roman plays – Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra and seamlessly integrated  them into 5 hours 45 minutes of gripping theatre.
Designer Jan Versweyveld turned the Festival Theatre stage into a combination broadcasting studio and – with dozens of low set Ikea style divans – hotel lounge. Amongst the seating are raised platforms for actors’ performances and above them large circular lampshades keeping the area almost always fully lit. There are monitor screens everywhere and at the proscenium is a huge screen for a continuous hi def video feed and surtitles.
Among the many innovative and refreshing aspects of the production is the freedom for  the audience. Most notably we are invited to sit on stage, an invitation taken up by several hundred at a time – people sitting, standing, crouched on the floor, watching the actors perform at close proximity directly, or through the monitors. Drinks are served from a bar onstage and people are encouraged to tweet messages about the show and take photographs.
There are no intervals but scene changes of up to nine minutes are announced and we are able to get up and walk around, chat and generally recharge. It is a welcome change from the rigorous decorum often associated with a fourth wall theatre performance.
Driven by rapid video edits, breaking news LED crawl updates and, to indicate battle scenes, sustained bursts of  blisteringly loud drumming and clashing cymbals, Roman Tragedies is intense. The continuity is dazzling and the emotional and thematic intensity unremitting. It is like guzzling through DVDs of series television the way we now do – hoovering up box sets of Borgen or House of Cards or Game of Thrones.
But none of this high octane staging detracts from the excellence of the acting. For all the technological high definition, the play is still the thing- and the performances are outstanding. As Coriolanus, Gijs Scholten van Aschat explodes  in haughty contempt for the citizens he is supposed to govern and we watch as his pride – and his oedipal fear of his mother – bring about his downfall. As Brutus, in Julius Caesar, Roeland Fernhout is drawn into a conspiracy which begins as a just cause and deteriorates into a wolvish struggle for power.
Spanning the last two plays, Hans Kesting is splendid as Mark Antony – rallying the crowd in his oration to the dead Caesar and then, fatally attracted and tragically enmeshed with Cleopatra (Chris Nietvelt) in a love affair that brings down on them the wrath of an empire. So many performances are extraordinary – Frieda Pittoors as Volumnia, Marieke Heebink as Cassius, Bart Slegers as Aufidius fending off TV interviewers and, then as the steadfast Enobarbus, abandoning Mark Antony he literally runs out of the theatre. The video feed follows him, as he stands in the traffic on King William Street delivering his agonised speech of defeat.
Modernising Shakespeare is not a new thing. In his famous 1937 version of Julius Caesar Orson Welles used a media pack and contemporary references – at that time, the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany. But Toneelgroep Amsterdam and director Ivo van Hove have brought such intelligence, thematic complexity and theatrical clarity to this production it becomes a new benchmark. Roman Tragedies is drama at its most satisfying.

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