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Sydney Festival: Some shows are bigger than others

Jan 15, 2016 Travel

Our editor-at-large reports from the Sydney Festival.


It’s hot and it’s getting hotter in Sydney right now, and that’s just the way I like it. It’s an oven down in the town, but there’s a breeze up on the headlands of the Botanic Gardens looking out to sea, and out on the water, on the ferry to Manly, say, and if that’s not enough all you have to do is get right into the water. Burst through the surf at Bondi, perhaps, or wallow somewhere in a pool. You choose: public, hotel, private, Sydney is a city of swimming pools.

You can also, if you prefer, settle yourself in the long cool cave of Hyde Park, that central avenue densely overhung by fig trees, sitting back to let the commuters walk and scoot and run past, flocks of tourists in their wake, the ibises strutting and pecking and sometimes swooping  over the lawns, thousands of bats asleep high overhead. Until evening, that is, when the sun goes down and they launch themselves out over the city, ignored by locals and scaring the shit out of visitors from London.

I have that on the good authority of Josie Long, the English comedian who is compering a late-night comedy show called The Invisible Dot Cabaret, in a spiegeltent in Hyde Park, as part of the Sydney Festival. She can’t believe we’re not all terrified of the bats, but then maybe, back in the gloom of her own homeland, she watches too many movies. Her colleague, the supremely funny James Acaster, who’s also English, reckons Australia is the second best country in the world. He tells his somewhat drunk Sydney audience that the fact they complain about coming second is the reason they do not come first. Who does come first? We do. But New Zealanders don’t believe we should, he says, and that’s part of our charm. Possibly all of it.

As for those bats: the best view is from the steps of the Opera House. It’s one of the best views of the city, actually, the ferries, the bridge, the throngs of people, the glassy wall of city towers and rough stonework of everything else, the sense of a place built and rebuilt with an ever-quickening vitality – is there a more beautiful and thrilling place to be at sundown in any city in the world?

It’s heading for 38 degrees today. In most cities where they have an arts festival, they do it in the autumn shoulder season (March in Auckland and Wellington), but here they just go, “Fuck that, if we have to be back at work at the height of summer, let’s celebrate.” It’s brilliant. I won’t hide it, my trip is paid for, but what they don’t know is that I probably would have come anyway. The weather makes the festival all the more fabulous.

I caught a train last night to a suburb in the far northwest, on a service that’s fast and extremely frequent, to see a festival play in a community hall, and I got there early enough to sit outside on a little village street to eat an unbelievably good lamb shish. The meat was charcoal smoky, the yoghurt richly garlicky, the hummus and tabbouleh fresh and vigorous. In a far-flung suburb. My god they know how to eat in this city.

The play itself was good, though not as good as the version Silo Theatre presented in Auckland last year. It was The Events, about a youth who goes on a shooting rampage in a community hall where a choir is rehearsing. Silo teased more meaning from the play and resisted the urge to create a happy(ish) ending, which the Sydney show couldn’t, or didn’t, but it was a terrific evening nonetheless. Especially as I got back in time to catch the end of the Bowie tribute dance party in Hyde Park. Old people who remember and young people with the lightning from Aladdin Sane painted across their faces. And those bats, of course, audible between songs, calling to each other.

Woyzeck. Photo by Jamie Williams.
Woyzeck. Photo by Jamie Williams.

I saw another show at Carriageworks, a vast old industrial workshop complex converted to exhibition and performance spaces including a 900-seat theatre. It was Woyzeck, a bleak German play written in 1836 and now reimagined with songs by Tom Waits. High art, really, which is the strangest of things for an irredeemably low-life troubadour like Waits to be involved in, but the staging was bracingly bold and the music was transcendent.

The staging was bracingly bold and the music was transcendent.

Festivals. When you can go to stuff you don’t get much chance to any other time, and some of it misses, some of it hits, and some of those hits might just change how you experience the world.

And Sydney, where the heat has stayed but now it’s pouring with rain, great splashes on the hot pavements, the wind up and shattering the umbrellas, dry leaves from the trees charting little tornadoes in the street corners, and everyone marching on, thriving, or trying to, amid the heat and great delights of the place. Such an easy city for a visitor to love.

Want a little excitement this weekend? Maybe you can’t bear having to wait till March for the Auckland Festival, or you’re looking for some excuse not to go back to work? Come over. The festival’s got nearly two more weeks to run.

Coming up: opera in the Domain, two fully programmed speigeltents, major Aboriginal dance, all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies played on period instruments, an opera based on John Marsden and Shaun Tan’s magnificent picture book The Rabbits, a city built of cardboard and Joanna Newsom. Some shows are bigger than others, of course: they’ve also got the songs of Morrissey as reinterpreted by a Mexican band. Called Mexrrissey.

Sydney Festival:

Simon Wilson is visiting Sydney courtesy of Destination NSW and the Sydney Festival.

Main photo: Prudence Upton.


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