How do you distil the best of the globe’s theatre, music and dance into 17 days – before shipping it over to the southern hemisphere?
The Adelaide Festival aimed to answer that conundrum this year with an emphasis on immersive theatre. The arts festival has long been known as the “Edinburgh of Australia”. But one member of the National Theatre of Scotland, which came on board this year with The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, thought that wasn’t good enough. “Edinburgh with balls” was his verdict.
Liverpool-born artistic director David Sefton declines to comment on whether that’s a tagline he’ll be using in the near future. But he says: “It’s an ideal situation really – a festival modelled on Edinburgh but with the freedom of being a festival that isn’t predominantly about classical music. In Adelaide, it really is about the artistic director’s choices without any of the old school restrictions.”
Predictably, Sefton also refuses to pick his highlights from the packed programme – “obviously I’ve got 17 days of highlights” – but you can tell he has a particular soft spot for two works: Prudencia Hart and Ontoerend Goed’s Trilogy.
“So many people are doing all of that whole interactive theatre thing now,” he says. “There are lots and lots of people telling you to dress up as a kipper and turn up on a corner by a postbox, instead of just selling you a ticket for a show. But the Belgians were kind of in there from the start.”
There’s no Hippocratic oath for actors, no thespians’ code of conduct. But after feeling manipulated/ molested/ aroused/ betrayed by some beautiful Belgians, you might think there should be.
In their three shows, the theatrical experience is turned on its head. The theatregoers become the cast and carrion of The Smile Off Your Face, Internal and A Game of You.
As the members of Ontoerend Goed turn their gaze on their punters, the actors are the ones in control, the audience the ones in jeopardy as they are cajoled into revealing their secrets.
It posed a problem for Sefton, who despite gaining a reputation as a fearless artistic director, has two anxieties he has been keen to hide: claustrophobia and a fear of darkness. The first of the trilogy involves wearing a blindfold, having your hands bound and being pushed in a wheelchair around a room full of sensory surprises.
“I had done two of the three before – Internal and Game Of You,” says Sefton. “But the dark secret that the Belgians knew and in here they didn’t was that I’d never done Smile Off Your Face before because I’m claustrophobic. “In Edinburgh, they’d spent weeks trying to persuade me to do it and I never did but when I booked the Trilogy, I felt I had to do it.”
So how did he get over his fear? He cheated, of course. “It wasn’t too bad,” he says, “because I could get a little chink of light at the bottom of my blindfold – total darkness does freak me out. Most of the time, I kept my eyes open.”
In Prudencia Hart, my personal highlight of the festival, there is also some audience interaction and bodily contact. I was picked out as “the boy from the country clothing store” and given a lap dance by actress Annie Grace.
But where the Trilogy shows are unsettling and even shocking, Prudencia is gentle, sweet and deeply touching. Tickets were like gold dust and the production received rave reviews all round.
Sefton had been waiting years for the opportunity to stage Kamp, a puppet show by Dutch company Hotel Modern, which attempts to portray the horror of the Nazi death camps. He managed it at Adelaide despite the logistical difficulties of packing away the intricate sets in a boat for six weeks each way and the whole run has completely sold out.
They’re not all humdingers though. Doku Rai received several poor reviews and was described to me by one theatregoer as “absolute gibberish”. Meanwhile, Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage struck me as a brash student musical, despite the best efforts of its talented cast.
The play, which was created jointly by Adelaide’s Brink Productions and the English Touring Theatre, is receiving its world premiere at the festival. Its running time oscillated wildly and some scenes fell flat.
But a show whose first act is taken up largely by its characters sitting on the toilet – with one even sending a picture of his output to his girlfriend’s phone – before powerfully exploring the impact of terrorism, shows the scope of a festival that also featured ballerina Sylvie Guillem and Australian electronic music group Severed Heads.
The cherry on the cake of the festival is Barrio, a ragbag of discarded junk turned into a bizarre and thrilling outdoor night spot. What other club could else can get away with showcasing mudwrestling alongside a marriage ceremony, a bunga bunga party, 3D printing machines, ritual foot washing, psychotic dentists and a mass Scrabble game? And of course, Adelaide offers wall-to-wall sunshine.
Sefton adds: “One of the things that I think this festival is quite good at doing is getting that destination feeling going. And then you can go out into wine country and go for a swim and still be immersed in a cultural experience. “Whereas if you go to Edinburgh, you can be immersed in a cultural experience – and constantly rained on.”
So Adelaide offers Edinburgh, but with fun and sun. And balls, of course.
Adelaide Festival continues until 17 March