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Sydney Festival reveals full 2018 program, tapping into politics and the city’s heart

Adelaide Festival yesterday announced its 2018 program, made up of more than ten high-profile Adelaide exclusives.

But Sydney Festival’s Artistic Director Wesley Enoch today releases his 2018 program, saying that Australia’s major festival directors need to: “release ourselves from the needs to have exclusives and premieres and go ‘what’s right for the cultural life of the city? And what’s missing from the cultural life of the city?’”

Of course, Enoch acknowledges that Adelaide Festival is rather uniquely placed when it comes to Australian festivals, given that around 30% of its audience comes from overseas or interstate. That means Adelaide’s directors, Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy, have worked hard to secure exclusives for their city to entice visitors. In several instances they’ve actually arranged Asian tours for artists visiting from the US or Europe so they can justify skipping other Australian cities when they visit the region.

Sydney Festival, by contrast, gets around 15% of its audience from outside of NSW, so there’s a less obvious need to secure as many exclusives.

Several of the biggest ticket items at next January’s festival will or have beeen seen at other Australian festivals or Australian theatre companies, including the contemporary ballet Tree of Codes, the UK National Theatre’s Barber Shop Chronicles, Circus Oz’s Model Citizen and Dead Puppet Society’s The Wider Earth.

In spite of this, Enoch says Australia’s festivals are becoming more distinctive from one another, and defining clearer characters.

Next year’s Sydney Festival is inspired largely by Sydney itself, and features language classes teaching local Indigenous dialects, a public art project inspired by the colonial history of the city, and a series of concerts performed in spaces designed by Australia’s legendary modernist architect Harry Seidler.

In 2018, Enoch is also looking at the way artists are stepping up to big political and social conversations where media and politicians are failing.

“I don’t think that any art is apolitical,” he says. “Every time I’ve made a work, you know no matter what you do, it’s going to be politically-charged. Some people have the luxury of thinking their work is not politically charged, and that’s their business. But as a curated platform, the festival is about what fascinates me, and what role I think an artist plays in a society.”

Enoch says Australia has just experienced two decades of bland contribution to the cultural conversations from our major theatre companies. He’s hoping the festival can be bolder and more engaged in social and political conversations.

Three of Sydney Festival’s big exclusive events were announced earlier this year: underwater concert Aquasonic at Carriageworks, the Wooster Group’s The Town Hall Affair, which features ER star Maura Tierney as Germaine Greer, and Irish drag queen and equality campaigner Panti Bliss’s variety show Riot.

Within the program there are works that tackle politics in subtle ways and works that tackle politics in overt ways. By the same token, there are works that take a very serious approach to their politics, and others that are more irreverent, including a show by Facebook video star satirist Randy Rainbow.

The festival also features a work that seems to respond to some of the controversy faced by this year’s program.

In January, environmental groups attacked The Beach installation, which featured 1.1 million plastic balls shipped in from overseas.

“What’s more environmental — the shipping of a million balls from America to here, or making new balls?,” Enoch asks. “We made the choice that we would ship the balls, and then they could be shipped on to the next event.”

Next year’s festival features an installation by Japanese artist Hiroshi Fuji, who recently established a toy exchange for discarded plastic toys. He reuses those toys by crafting them into new artistic forms.

“Anything that actually pushes us to think about those ideas is a good thing — not that we set out to court controversy with The Beach,” Enoch says. “We were talking to [Fuji] already when that issue came up, and his practice is all about re-using, but it’s still about plastic.”

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SYDNEY FESTIVAL 2018 HIGHLIGHTS

the town hall affair

Germaine Greer will be in Sydney to see this theatrical reimagining of the 1971 documentary Town Bloody Hall, which followed a debate between herself, Norman Mailer and Jill Johnston. The play premiered earlier this year in New York and stars Maura Tierney as Greer.

BARBER SHOP CHRONICLES

Written by Nigerian-born, UK-based playwright Inua Ellams, Barber Shop Chronicles premiered at the National Theatre in London this year before an extensive tour. It takes place in a number of different barber shops, showing the kinds of relationships and intimate conversations black men have in these spaces.

JURASSIC PLASTIC

Japan doesn’t have many second-hand exchanges for toys, so artist Hiroshi Fuji established one. In this installation, he repurposes those discarded toys into new figures.

THE WIDER EARTH

Brisbane-based company Dead Puppet Society create visual theatrical experiences unlike anything you’ve experienced before. In The Wider Earth, which scored five stars in our review of its Queensland Theatre season, they imagine Charles Darwin’s journey on the HMS Beagle.

VILLAGE SIDESHOW

The Festival Village in Hyde Park has long been the heart of Sydney Festival, and this year it extends its offering beyond spiegeltents and full-scale live performances (although both are still taking place). Wesley Enoch describes the Village Sideshow as a series of “cultural speed dates”, activities that take anywhere from three to ten minutes. There’s karaoke carousel, allowing visitors to belt out a tune while they ride a carousel, swimming pools, and a ghost train which will combine virtual reality with other sensory experiences.

RIOT

Also at Festival Village is a variety show overseen by legendary Irish drag queen Panti Bliss, who became an unofficial spokesperson for Ireland’s marriage equality campaign.

FOUR THOUSAND FISH

Four Thousand Fish is an unusual participatory installation that speaks to the history of Sydney Harbour and our consumption of resources. In the early days of colonisation, European settlers netted 4000 fish in one go, and ended up wasting much of what they’ve caught and severely disrupted the delicate ecosystem preserved by the Aboriginal women in the area.

Visitors are invited to take water from the cove, freeze it into a fish mould, and then place the fish into a canoe and watch it melt back into the water.

RANDY RAINBOW

Masterful musical satirist Randy Rainbow is best known for his viral video clips, taking the piss out of President Trump and other political figures. He’ll bring his live satirical show to the spiegeltent.

TRIBUNAL

Tribunal is an extraordinarily affecting performance project which had a brief season at Griffin Theatre last year, coming from Powerhouse Youth Theatre in the western Sydney suburb of Fairfield. The project is a kind of people’s court, overseen by Indigenous elder Aunty Rhonda Grovernor Dixon, to hear the stories of asylum seekers who have arrived on Australian shores in recent years.

BACKBONE

Backbone comes from Adelaide-based circus company Gravity and Other Myths, and was nominated for three Helpmann Awards earlier this year. Following its premiere at last year’s Adelaide Festival, the work has been invited to several high-profile festivals in Europe.

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