Every major arts festival around Australia has its own specific identity — one that’s inseparably tied to the city in which each festival takes place, and where the festival falls on a calendar.
Sydney Festival’s identity has always been bright, celebratory and focused on all things summer and outdoorsy — its slogan is even “our city in summer”. And there aren’t many places in the world that have a more glorious summer than Sydney’s.
But Sydney Festival is also a serious arts festival, meant to look to both the greatest and most ground-breaking work happening at home and overseas.
Director Wesley Enoch, whose first Sydney Festival just wrapped up this weekend, turned the focus of his programming deliberately inward, and not without good reason. The balance of local to international work shifted more in favour of local work than we’re used to seeing at major arts festivals, and that’s been key to the success of this wonderful festival.
Enoch stated clearly that his reason for focusing on local work was to respond to the difficulties faced by smaller players in the arts over the last few years of funding uncertainty caused by destructive and poorly conceived federal government arts policies. The Festival was an attempt to help small-to-medium organisations reach broader audiences, and to provide them with the opportunity to expand their works.
“The result is a Sydney Festival that’s felt vibrant, connected to its audience, and reflecting their concerns in a way that I’ve never seen before.”
But it also responds very clearly to the fact that Australia’s arts organisations aren’t always capable of touring their work, which means that largely Sydney sees the work of Sydney artists, Melbourne sees the work of Melbourne artists, Brisbane sees the work of Brisbane artists, and so on. There’s obviously a lot of work that does tour, but there are plenty of practical problems with touring a country as big and expensive as Australia, which can prevent the smaller players from travelling. A festival as big as Sydney Festival can help to overcome these problems.
The result is a Sydney Festival that’s felt vibrant, connected to its audience, and reflecting their concerns in a way that I’ve never seen before. My focus has been mainly on the theatre work throughout the festival, but it’s certainly been the most rewarding Sydney Festival I’ve experienced.
There’s been some wonderful international work: major productions like The Encounter, Cheek By Jowl and Pushkin Theatre Moscow’s Measure for Measure, and Gecko’s Institute, alongside smaller international pieces, like the program of work from Canada, which speaks very clearly to Australian concerns, given our two nations’ political and social similarities.
It was a Festival in which Canadian trans performer Ivan Coyote can tell a very personal, culturally-specific story to Australian audiences about gender, identity and resilience, and it translates perfectly and sits beautifully alongside other works in the festival tackling similar themes.
There were many artists from Sydney in the Festival, and there was even free nightly entertainment hosted by Bob Downe, a man who screams Sydney more loudly than anybody I’ve ever encountered.
But it’s the work of artists from other places across the country that’s set this Festival apart.
There’s been a lot of work from Brisbane, which is no surprise given Enoch comes into this role after being the artistic director of Queensland Theatre. But Queensland is also a very vibrant place for the performing arts at this point in time. My favourite work from Brisbane was La Boite’s production of Prize Fighter, a gripping, totally original, and undeniably important piece of theatre.
The night after seeing Prize Fighter, I explained to somebody that it felt a lot like much of the theatre I’ve seen in Brisbane, coming from that city’s younger artists — direct, lively, entertaining and fast-paced. It’s rare that Sydney gets to see a style of theatre that feels quite particular to Brisbane.
“The best arts festivals should be both inward and outward-looking.”
Similarly, Patricia Cornelius is known very much as a Melbourne writer, and her style emerges clearly from the politically-charged, brutal and often bleak independent theatre of Melbourne, a style seen rarely in Sydney. To see so much of her work celebrated, particularly the exceptionally good Shit, was an absolute treat.
Then there’s the Indigenous part of the festival, which featured works from around the country, including Nathan Maynard’s Tasmania-set The Season. I’m not convinced it reached its full potential, but it showed us a place in Australia, and a group of Australian people, rarely portrayed in our culture.
The best arts festivals should be both inward and outward-looking. Sydney Festival, this year, remembered that to be outward-looking can mean to look to the rest of the country as much as it can mean to look out to the rest of the world. It was a Festival in which we could consider the political realities of Russia through a new production of Shakespeare one night, then consider the realities of growing up as a young woman in suburban Sydney the next, before considering what it is to be a refugee from a war-torn nation rebuilding a life in Brisbane the next.
Here’s hoping Enoch can deliver something just as strong over the next two years.