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Oz Asia’s new frontiers in 2018 for Adelaide

Murray Bramwell talks with OzAsia artistic director, Joseph Mitchell about his latest festival program

Launched in 2006 by Adelaide Festival Centre director Douglas Gautier, OzAsia is now in its twelfth year and is looking more  innovative and intriguing than ever. Since its inception the festival has expanded its horizons and become ever more inclusive. Already spanning Asia and South East Asia – China, Japan to Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, as well as The Philippines and Indonesia – this year there are works from Syria and Iran, as well as joint ventures with the UK, Belgium, Denmark and Latvia.

Now presenting his fourth festival (he is contracted until 2019) Joseph Mitchell, the festival’s upbeat artistic director, describes the way it has developed :

“When I first applied for the job, my vision was to present contemporary Asian culture in the 21st century, examining the new developments in China and South East Asia. But in my third festival, and now this year, I am trying to think about what is the dialogue with Asia, to get beyond the geographical boundaries and strict definitions and have a broader conversation about Asia.”

A prime example of this shifting trend is War Sum Up (pictured above), the centrepiece opera in this year’s festival, from perpetual innovators Hotel Pro Forma. Last seen at Barrie Kosky’s 1996 Adelaide Festival with the visually impressive Operation :Orfeo, this Danish company, led by founder Kirsten Dehlholm, epitomises the kind of dialogue Mitchell is referring to.

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“I’ve been sitting on this for a couple of years – and it felt right for this year. I am very excited about it. We are looking at a work with a Danish director, a Latvian choir, compositions from UK art-pop musicians, The Irrepressibles and French electronic artist Gilbert Nouno. One of the most boundary-pushing contemporary opera companies in the world is turning to iconic Japanese Noh theatre as its inspiration. This reinforces the idea that this is the Asian century. “ 

Using Manga visual images and drawing on three archetypal Noh texts featuring The Soldier, The Warrior and The Spy, War Sum Up is described as the ultimate audio-visual requiem on destruction and loss. With two performances on November 5 and 6, it promises, like last year’s extraordinary Japanese opera, Keiichiro Shibuya’s The End, to be a festival highlight. 

Also extending the OzAsia gaze this year is the Syrian theatre production, While I was Waiting, written by Mohammed Al Attar and directed by Omar Abussada. As Mitchell notes :

“When you think about it, what is Asia ? It is a continent – and what we call the Middle East used to be called Western Asia. We have already programmed work from Israel. And one reason I chose this play is because South Australia has had two significant waves of Syrian migration – in the 1980s and recently, as part of the refugee crisis.”

“Omar Abusaada is one of the hottest directors in Europe right now and Mohammed Al Attar is one of the hottest playwrights.

“Mohammed is now based in the Volksbuhne Theatre in Berlin while Omar still lives, works and travels widely in Syria. 

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While I Was Waiting shows the human face of Damascus. The impact of the civil war is the instigation for the play but it is not about ISIS or chemical weapons, it is about a family. It is family kitchen sink story with a cast of six or seven characters which follows all the standard elements of a three act drama. It goes beyond the headlines and is about people like us – living in horrific circumstances and trying to deal with it the best way they can.”

“This connects to a broader theme throughout the festival which is displacement, how people are displaced from their lives in various ways and this is a very obvious example. The lead character is in a coma (after being savagely beaten near a roadblock) so he is not in reality anymore. Instead he is hovering above the action in no man’s land. His sister has gone to Lebanon to seek refuge, his best friend smokes pot to escape reality, and his mother is in a state of self-imposed grief.” 

In 2017 Mitchell programmed the landmark Singaporean play Hotel by Alfian Sa’at and Marcia Vanderstraaten and performed by Ivan Heng’s Wild Rice Company. This year’s headliner is Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land presented by eminent Taiwanese playwright and director, Stan Lai and his Performance Workshop.

Mitchell enthuses :

“Stan Lai is the biggest name theatre director in all of China. I’ve said he is like their Baz Luhrmann. Everyone has heard of him. This is the play that made his reputation in 1986. It resonated with audiences  perhaps the way The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll did in Australia . We can call it a Chinese classic.

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“Stan is from Taiwan but the China /Taiwan divide is irrelevant to him. This play has had more than a thousand productions in Beijing. It will have ten productions going at any given time. Now he has two full time companies – one in  Shanghai, one in Taipei, and about 60% of the repertoire will be his own plays.”

Secret Love is surprisingly contemporary even by today’s standards. It is really three plays in one. The premise is that two different theatre companies have been double-booked into the same theatre and they have to work together to get their plays up.

“One guy is telling this romantic story of love and loss for people separated in the Chinese Communist Revolution. The other play is performed by undergrad uni students who’ve taken this mythic work and turned it into a contemporary clown farce. So they have to negotiate the space – which creates a third play about what goes on behind the scenes with stage managers and production people, and so we see the works from different angles. Stan compares it to Greek theatre where a program of tragedies always included a comic farce to cheer the audience up.”

This will be Stan Lai’s first visit to Australia and there will be some audience members well familiar with his work and reputation, but for many more of us, it is a rare first chance to see a much celebrated example of Chinese theatre. 

Here is the Message You Asked for …Don’t Tell Anyone Else ;-) is the conspiratorial title of another Chinese theatre piece – directed by Sun Xiaoxing , who, at age 32, is rapidly gaining attention as a key player in a new wave of creativity. 

“I wanted to find works that are interpreting things as they are now,” Mitchell explains –“ I want to see stories about contemporary life in cities like Beijing and Shanghai where there are 20 million people – and young people in their thirties are still living with their parents. 

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“This is ripe for storytelling and not necessarily Western style storytelling. This production is borderline performance art. You will see a narrative not necessarily a text. While actors speak there are no surtitles because they are not saying anything intelligible. It’s literally a work about the culture of young people not leaving their bedrooms which is a real phenomenon on Asia but is also happening around the world.”

In Here is the Message the audience is encouraged to be both voyeur and participant as we watch a group of millennial girls, in what is described as a fishbowl dormitory, using their mobile phones and passing the time. There will be a downloadable app for the audience to exchange texts with the girls during the performance. 

There are other listings which promise much. Baling, a verbatim theatre work documenting an historic meeting in Malaya in 1955 between newly elected leader Tunku Abdul Rahman, British colonial official David Marshall and Communist insurgent Chin Peng sheds light on a little-known political turning point. Presented by the Malaysian Five Arts Centre it is forum theatre reminiscent of Augusto Boal. Similarly, Paulo Castro’s  Hello My Name Is features actor Jose Da Costa and uses texts from UK playwright Edward Bond to explore the violence and upheaval in the struggle for Timor Leste.

In the Dunstan Playhouse the Dancing Grandmothers from Korea will exuberantly dance, back flip and celebrate eternal youthfulness. For two nights, Belgian choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui will reprise Sutra, first performed ten years ago at Sadler’s Wells, featuring 19 Shaolin Monks in a merging of dance and acrobatics using a set design of shape-shifting boxes designed by high profile sculptor Antony Gormley.    

With more than 50 listed events in theatre, music, dance, film, visual arts, community events, forums and the Jaipur Literature  Festival,  OzAsia offers an extensive program over 19 days. Tens of thousands will attend the Moon Lantern Festival, eager crowds will frequent the Lucky Dumpling Market and its associated free music performances, while others of us will be checking out the theatre and dance. 

Every OzAsia has its never-to-be-forgotten highlights. Last year it was the extraordinary Japanese theatre company Niwa Gekidan Penino with Kura Tanino’s The Dark Inn and the astonishing robotic vocalising of Keiichiro Shibuya’s Scary Beauty.

In 2016 it was the Company Theatre of Mumbai’s captivating Twelfth Night and Hiroaki Umeda’s extraordinary visual dance work Split Flow and Holistic Strata. This year has plenty of candidates for equal acclaim. Joseph Mitchell has developed an increasingly reliable reputation for finding works of high calibre and genuine originality. 

When I ask him what he wants to achieve, his reply is simple enough- “I hope people enjoy it. I try to encourage people to see three things in the program to get a dialogue going with themselves and their friends and develop a broader sense of what’s on offer. I want them to see why it’s a festival, why it’s different from other festivals, and why it belongs in Adelaide.”

OzAsia opens October 25 until November 11

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