Sydney Festival Wrap: Bertles Makes His Mark

Given the rumours of severe budgetary constraints, the 2013 Sydney Festival is a particularly auspicious debut for its new artistic director Lieven Bertles. Bertles has done more with less than his immediate predecessors managed, which only proves that it’s not all about money. Bertles restored an edge to the festival and diluted the populism that had come to consume it; populism that is properly the domain of commercial producers.

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Andre Wilms in Eraritjaritjaka. Photo by Jamie Williams.

 Festivals should explode our minds with ideas and possibilities not previously encountered, and that was certainly the case with Eraritjaritjaka. Devised, composed and directed by Heiner Goebbels, this was a stunning fusion of theatre, cinema and music starring the brilliant Andre Wilms delivering a text concocted from the philosophical musings of Elias Canetti. It featured live music presented by the Mondriaan String Quartet (ranging from Bach to Shostakovich to Goebbels) and live videos by Bruno Deville. By toying with our belief in what we were seeing on stage and on screen Goebbels made us question, absorb, relish and ponder long after the final curtain-call.

 The Royal Shakespeare Company’s one-woman realisation of Shakespeare’s epic poem The Rape of Lucrece was a triumph of a very different sort, with raw emotion bleeding on to the stage in Camille O’Sullivan’s gripping performance. (See full review: http://www.johnshand.com.au/the-rape-of-lucrece/.)

 By contrast La Fura Dels Baus’s Alex Ollé managed to do the unimaginable and drain much of the emotion from Verdi’s A Masked Ball, in a joint production with Opera Australia. Yet it was still high-calibre, risk-taking work, and where there are real risks there will be those don’t quite come off. (See full review: http://www.johnshand.com.au/a-masked-ball/.)

 None of the major concerts quite reached anticipated heights, with Sing the Truth falling short to the greatest degree, given that the combination of Dianne Reeves, Lizz Wright and Angelique Kidjo had looked pretty good on paper. (See full review: http://www.johnshand.com.au/sing-the-truth/.)

 Bringing out France’s Orchestre National de Jazz to play Around Robert Wyatt, was one of Bertles most imaginative coups, and it was glorious to finally hear Wyatt’s music in Australia, even if the sound, playing and orchestrations were not quite all one might have hoped for. (See full review: http://www.johnshand.com.au/orchestre-national-de-jazz/.)

 Rokia Traore certainly delivered, but putting one of her four shows in the Spiegeltent was an odd decision. The one Sydney performance of her own (rather than traditional) material was billed as a dance show in the unloved Town Hall, which left Parramatta, where it rained on her outdoor parade. Nonetheless the City Recital Hall concert was exquisite on its own terms. (See full review: http://www.johnshand.com.au/rokia-traore-2/)

Urban by Circolumbia was a raw and energetic acrobatic show (see full review: http://www.johnshand.com.au/parramatta-opening-party/), while the Kashmere Stage Band played robust but forgettable funk. The show I most regret missing in the best Sydney Festival for half a dozen years was Semele Walk. Welcome to Sydney, Mr Bertles.