In Adelaide for the opening of this year’s Adelaide Festival, I could only stay for two days but thanks to some clever, thoughtful programming from co-Artistic Directors Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy and their team, I was able to see five very different shows, which together made for an exhilarating start.

Brett Dean’s opera Hamlet (read the Limelight review) was a real festival event and an intense and intensely rewarding way to launch the 2018 program. The following day Memorial, Thyestes, Split and The Far Side of the Moon each in their own, very different ways, offered something special.

★★★★☆ Memorial (Brink Productions)

Memorial is a deeply moving piece of theatre with a sublime score. It is based on Alice Oswald’s 2011 poem, which is “an excavation” (as she puts it) of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, set during the Trojan War. Oswald’s pared-back version honours the 215 warriors who die in it, naming them all. Chris Drummond, Artistic Director of Brink Productions, and Yaron Lifschitz, Artistic Director of Circa, worked together to adapt it for the stage, with Drummond directing the production and Lifschitz overseeing the movement.

Adelaide FestivalHelen Morse in Memorial. Photo © Shane Reid

Memorial is essentially an elegy to those killed in battle: a roll-call of the dead, with brief but eloquent snatches of information about who they each were, and graphic descriptions of how they perished, along with lyrical descriptive passages. Helen Morse is the play’s narrator, a tiny figure in a red dress with a serene presence and a mesmerising voice. Just learning the poetic text, with its parade of names, is a feat in itself, but the vocal variety and compassion that Morse brings to the telling of the terrible tale is breath-taking. It is a magnificent performance.

The production involves around 200 performers – men, women and children of all ages from the local community – along with ten musicians and singers (led by Music Director Jonathan Peter Kenny) who are positioned on a platform above the back of the stage. Drummond commissioned British composer Jocelyn Pook to write a score and the resulting music, with a Middle Eastern/Eastern European sound, is transcendently beautiful.

The opening image is of a stage covered with bodies. Slowly one person raises an arm, then another, then another, and then they gradually all rise. From there, the choreography has this “soldier chorus” moving in various groups and patterns – a single file across the stage like a passing parade of humanity, a swirling mass of people circling Morse, a line-up along the back of the stage from which two young children step forward in helmets, couples dancing quietly together. The movement throughout is highly effective, while simple gestures like a woman handing Morse a bowl of water in ritual fashion have a compelling resonance.

Running one hour and 45 minutes, Memorial does feel a bit over-long, but the cumulative effect of the list of dying warriors is a powerful statement about the tragic waste of life. The ending, as all the performers sing “thousands of leaves” over and over in soaring harmonies (having compared thousands of leaves to thousands of bodies) is unutterably moving and tears slid down faces all over the auditorium.

Memorial has its final performance tonight


★★★★½ Thyestes (The Hayloft Project, Belvoir)

Simon Stone’s radical, contemporary re-imagining of Seneca’s violent tragedy Thyestes, with its litany of horror including murder, rape and incest, is confronting, shocking, gripping, completely unexpected and exhilarating theatre.

Adelaide FestivalChris Ryan and Thomas Henning in Thyestes. Photo © Jeff Busby

Written by Stone with the original cast – Thomas Henning, Chris Ryan and Mark Leonard Winter – it premiered at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre in 2011 then had a Sydney season at Belvoir the following year. Now it has its Adelaide premiere with Henning and Ryan reprising their roles, and Toby Schmitz joining them as Thyestes’ psychopathic brother Atreus – and giving a truly terrifying performance.

The opening scene in which Thyestes and Atreus murder their half-brother Chrysippus makes it abundantly plain that this will be anything but a literal adaptation. Three young men in jeans chat casually over red wine about a trip to Guatemala gone wrong, girlfriends and sex. It’s very funny, until finally a gun appears. From there, each scene is a brilliantly conceived surprise that keeps you on the edge of your seat, not knowing what to expect next, from ping pong to Lieder.

Performed in traverse, on a harshly lit, gleaming white, open-sided box, with black screens descending to hide the miraculous scene changes (a stunningly effective design by Claude Marcos), the play is very cleverly structured. Digital surtitles announce each scene as the play moves forwards in time initially and then backwards so that it culminates with the horrifying banquet at the centre of the myth. You ain’t seen nothing like it. Astonishing theatre.

Thyestes runs until March 7


★★★★☆ Split (Lucy Guerin Inc)

Split is an intriguing dance work from the ever-fascinating choreographer Lucy Guerin, which premiered at Dance Massive in Melbourne in 2017. Two female dancers, one clothed (Melanie Lane), one naked (Lilian Steiner), begin dancing together in unison in the top left corner of a large square, marked out in white tape, to a throbbing percussive beat by British composer Scanner. Their movements are precise, detailed and rigorous, with plenty of repetition. Gradually they start to traverse the space together, moving diagonally across the square, arms and legs whipping and sweeping with absolute synchronicity. The choreography then develops to include floor work. At the end of the first section, they divide the space in half with white tape and begin again, performing for half the length of time. Then they halve the space and performance time again and again, eight times, until they are dancing in a teeny tiny square in the top right hand corner of the stage.

Lilian Steiner and Melanie Lane in Split. Photo: supplied

As the performance area constricts, the mood of the choreography changes. Calm, elegant unison gives way to more frenetic movement as the dancers weave around each other, then clamber on each other to fit into the increasingly tighter space, the tension between them growing. Paul Lim’s subdued lighting creates a moody atmosphere, the dancing is terrific and the concept offers all sorts of interpretations in a richly satisfying piece.

★★★★☆ The Far Side of the Moon (Ex Machina)

The Far Side of the Moon was written and devised by French Canadian auteur Robert Lepage in 2000. Initially Lepage performed it himself and, in fact, brought it to the 2001 Sydney Festival as part of an international tour. Yves Jacques has since taken on the one-man play, and does a sterling job.

It tells the story of two brothers – Philippe, an unhappy academic who is struggling with a thesis about how space travel has impacted on popular culture, and André, a brash, confident weatherman – and the conflict between them as they try to come to terms with the recent death of their mother.

Adelaide FestivalYves Jacques as the brothers’ mother in The Far Side of the Moon. Photo © Shane Reid

Lepage uses the space race between the Russians and Americans as a backdrop, weaving it into the plot, with particular reference to Russian cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, who was the first man to walk in space. Jacques plays both Philippe and André, as well as their mother and a doctor, and does an immaculate job of delineating them.

The ingenious, witty stagecraft uses projections, puppetry, a large mirror and the inventive use of props such as an ironing board to tell its story in inspired fashion. Unforgettable images include Philippe disappearing head-first into a front-loader washing machine at the laundrette, and an astronaut floating in space. A gentle, melancholic, thoughtful, dazzlingly staged piece of theatre with images that you will never forget.

 The Far Side of the Moon plays until March 7

The Adelaide Festival runs until March 18


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