Reviews, Stage, Theatre

Brisbane Festival highlights: a festival for the senses

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This year’s Brisbane Festival wants to engage your senses and intellect in equal measure, with a mix of bold and unusual sensory experiences and works that force you to apply your critical faculties to some of the biggest dilemmas faced by the world.

Across two days, I took in five shows at the festival — including Queensland Theatre’s magnificent and hugely provocative An Octoroondirected by Nakkiah Lui — and the four reviewed below.


The unlikely hero known as Laser Beak Man was born when his Brisbane-based creator and artist Tim Sharp was just 11 years old. He was first made as a hand-drawn comic character and then, in 2010, reimagined as an animated TV superhero.

Now the character is being brought to life by La Boite and Dead Puppet Society in a visually spectacular and consistently funny production combining live puppetry, music, and animations based on Sharp’s original art works.

The now 29-year-old Sharp was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, and was initially expected to face insurmountable learning difficulties over the course of his life. But when his mother introduced drawing as a means of communication, Sharp’s learning and speech development took off. His work was recently exhibited at the National Museum of Australia.

You can see the influence of those early parts of Sharp’s life clearly in the narrative of this piece of theatre, directed by David Morton, with Louise Gough and Todd MacDonald serving as dramaturgs.  The play is concerned with stories of outsiders, and the individuals who are underestimated and cast aside.

We get the origin story of Laser Beak Man — how he developed his laser beak, able to turn bad, violent and dangerous things into goodness — followed by his quest to stop his nemesis from destroying his home, Power City. But to do so, the divided Power City is going to have to pull together. Along the way there are killer tomatoes, a whole flock of barbies, real flying drones, and a Trump-esque mayor.

The combination of live puppetry and animation makes this an incredibly rich visual experience, sure to dazzle kids and adults from the digital age alike. It’s quite unlike anything you will have seen before. Live ‘60s-flavoured rock music performed by Sam Cromack (of Brisbane band Ball Park Music) and a small band drives and comments upon the action as it unfolds.

If there’s one complaint to be made it’s that the 90-minute running time feels a little too long for these characters, and perhaps also for the younger members of the audience who will otherwise find plenty of joy in the play. The show remains visually compelling and great fun right to the end, but there’s a clear sense of how the plot will unfold as it shuffles towards its conclusion.


Laser Beak Man is at La Boite until September 30


Blind Cinema is a wonderfully simple concept, but the impact is utterly charming.

Audience members enter an empty cinema and sit in every second row, donning a blindfold. Young children, aged nine to 11, then file into the empty rows and describe what they see on the screen to the adults in the row in front.

The children have never seen the film before, and they quickly whisper their amateur audio descriptions through listening funnels to the temporarily blinded adults. There’s no dialogue in the film and only some simple sound effects, so the small whispered voice is your only guide.

It requires the adult audience members to put a great deal of trust into anonymous children, as their entire experience of the work lies in their hands.

I was initially worried that there was a risk that I’d get a child who struggled or may have been distracted by their own nerves, but the children rotate so that each adult hears from three children across the 30 minutes.

That means this review is, to some extent, a review of the three anonymous children who were my guide to the film.

The first was meticulous and careful in their descriptions, and clearly thought very carefully about what information I might need to comprehend the film. The second was full of excitement as the action of the film unfolded.

The third was particularly expressive and wanted me to appreciate that this was a particularly scary part of the film. They spoke in a low, slow whisper: “There are all these eyes looking out of the black… and it’s reeeeally scary… they’re like ninjas, but scaaaaary ninjas.”

The work has toured extensively since its premiere in 2015, to festivals all around the world. Its creator Britt Hatzius has shaped an experience that’s entirely unique and brilliantly executed.


Blind Cinema played at GOMA from September 19 to 23


I walked from Blind Cinema — a performance all about the aural experience — directly to Driftwood — a performance all about the visual experience.

Driftwood is a bright and charming work from Brisbane-based circus ensemble Casus. It’s performed by a company of five who entertain for a full hour with sheer acrobatic skill and showmanship.

Kali Retallick employs her aerial skills to strong effect, Natano Fa’anana performs a brilliant acrobatic act inspired by his Samoan heritage, and Abbey Church proves herself to be a hugely versatile artist. Lachlan McAuley and Jesse Scott perform several duets requiring close trust between the two men who are quite different in stature.

Driftwood takes a similar no-frills, human-driven style to that employed by Brisbane’s internationally renowned circus ensemble Circa. It’s no surprise to learn that several of the ensemble members and creators of this show have previously been part of Circa.

It doesn’t have quite the same dramaturgical richness as most Circa shows — and takes a lighter and more obviously joyful approach than Circa’s works defined by human struggle — but there’s a similar inventiveness in the tricks performed.

The Casus ensemble manage find novelty in their use of a simple trapeze, or a hoop. You get the impression that this ensemble wants to avoid doing all that much that you’ve seen before, and they certainly succeed in that regard.


Driftwood is at the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent at South Bank until September 24


German lawyer and author Ferdinand von Schirach’s debut play Terror has become an almost immediate sensation. The court room drama which casts the audience as judge and jury premiered in Germany in 2015 and has been performed in 12 countries around the world in different productions with different translations.

Earlier this year, it had its London premiere at the Lyric Hammersmith, directed by Sean Holmes, and that’s the production that’s playing in Brisbane.

The plot offers a novel take on the classic “trolley problem“, and poses questions about weighing up ideals against the practical consequences of action.

The man on trial is Lars, a fighter pilot who took the law into his own hands a little over a year ago. A passenger jet with 164 passengers was hijacked by a terrorist who intended to fly the plane into a stadium holding 70,000 people, killing them all.

Lars was following the plane on orders from his superiors, but then went against orders and decided to shoot down the plane, killing 164 people, but saving up to 70,000. He’s on trial for the murder of all the passengers on the plane.

The audience is sent out for a brief intermission at the conclusion of the “trial”, and returns to vote on his guilt or innocence, via electronic devices attached to each chair.

The play itself throws up some sticky ethical questions — or rather one sticky ethical question — and the conversations I overheard at intermission were all deliberations about the case. But ultimately, it’s not the most compelling piece of drama, and some of the actors at the performance I saw seemed to be, pardon the pun, on autopilot. The standout however, was Sarah Malin, who proved a compelling and, for me, convincing prosecutor.

I’m no expert on Germany’s court system, but for a play and production that does its best to find a sense of realism, Terror has some glaring incongruities and ignores plenty of legal principles. And its treatment of terrorism also seems to overplay the threat in a way that’s not particularly useful nor realistic.


Terror played the Playhouse, QPAC, from September 19 to 23

This writer was a guest of Brisbane Marketing and Brisbane Festival.

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