Adelaide Festival 2020: Malcolm Page

Malcolm Page at the Adelaide Festival
1 June 2020


The Adelaide Festival ran from 28 February until 15th March this year [2020] and so finished just as Covid-19 was declared a pandemic. This was its sixtieth year. Begun in 1960, the festival was originally biennial and became annual in 2012. Like most festivals, it is loosely modeled on the Edinburgh Festival and features theatre, dance, symphony, and opera from local groups and, particularly, from overseas. The festival managers lay claim to featuring events that have appeared in Europe, and publicity frequently quotes The Stage and The Scotsman. This year, nearly all the shows ran for a mere 60 to 75 minutes — a widespread trend currently, unlike in earlier years where shows were full evenings and had intervals.

Of the four shows that I attended, listing two as “theatre” was curious. Both Cold Blood and Cock, Cock… Who’s There? featured a huge screen, in front of which the stage was almost empty. Three-quarters of the length of these shows was video.



Cock Cock … Who’s There? Photo credit Julien Lambert.


Cold Blood is a touring production from the Kiss and Cry Collective of Belgium that played at London’s Barbican from 29 January until 1st February [2020] before moving on to Adelaide. lt is varied and colourful, with an unseen person’s voice describing seven peculiar forms of deaths taken from a short story by Belgian author Thomas Gunzig. Nothing morbid, all exuberance.

Most remarkable, Cold Blood was made up from “dances” on miniature stages performed with fingers and hands that were enormously enlarged on the big screen. The dances ranged from tap dancing to driving on a lonely foggy road. These finger dances were the highlight, clever and imaginative though without emotional involvement. The show is accurately described as bursting “triumphantly out of artform pigeonholes”  — total theatre, in fact. No doubt deliberately, coherence and any kind of through-line is missing, so at moments l floundered. The downside is the centring on technology rather than humans. Clearly we playgoers are going to have to accept the mechanical such as was seen in the recent Twelfth Night at London’s National Theatre or in the Coriolanus directed by Robert Lepage at Stratford, Ontario which is sometimes used, it seems, because it exists and the budget will allow it.

Cock, Cock… Who’s There? is a one-woman show by Samira Elagoz, a Finnish-Dutch performer. She tells her story, apparently all factual, mostly narrating from a video, but now and then speaking herself from the stage. Two years after having been raped, she decided to examine how she had reacted. So on video she has friends and relations talk about her. Much odder, she seeks out men, strangers, in their homes, again videoing. This she sees as “research” on the way men and women come together physically. My struggle was to understand the psychology of Elagoz. This video-lecture has won three awards, so some have found here more than I did.



Cold Blood. Choreographer Michèle Adde De Mey and film director Jaco Van Dormael pictured. Photo credit: Julien Lambert.


Mouthpiece by Kieran Hurley was a success at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre at last year’s Edinburgh Festival. This two-character piece concerns the interaction of a middle-aged woman (Shauna Macdonald) and a disturbed teenager (Angus Taylor). Also, as Hurley claims in his programme note, Edinburgh is “a kind of third character”. ln addition, according to Hurley, Mouthpiece has “social themes of class and power and appropriation” and is “about love”. Couldn’t we be left to work it out for ourselves? Yet more, the woman is writing a play about the teenager and from time to time delivers odd lines such as: “We‘ve reached the middle of the play, so need a major surprise”- which we then see. Finally, Mouthpiece has a truly memorable climax. The teenager, who has quietly exited the stage, reappears in the audience area to denounce the woman who has used his life for a play. My one reservation is how many lines l missed because Taylor’s Scottish accent is so strong.

The Doctor was widely discussed and greatly admired when playing at the Almeida Theatre in London last year and, before the pandemic, was scheduled for a return in April this year. This production came to Australia, so there is little to add. The start is Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 play Professor Bernhardi, “freely adapted” by Robert lcke, who also directs. The professor is a woman, a role splendidly filled by Juliet Stevenson. The action is moved to present-day England. The Doctor remains a debate about ethics, beginning with a hospital chief refusing to allow a Catholic priest in to administer last rites to a dying fourteen-year-old girl. This builds rapidly to a public controversy as issues of race, gender, class, and medical ethics are introduced. in addition to gender reversal there is racial reversal with a white actor playing a black character. l did wonder whether the doctor would agree to go on a television show to face attackers – the TV panel provides a jolt early in the second half. The issue I was most strongly left with in this challenging work was where does the doctor stop and the human being begin – and the other way around?



Angus Taylor and Shauna Macdonald in Mouthpiece by Kieran Hurley. Photo credit: Julien Lambert


The Festival’s top events included Mozart‘s Requiem elaborately staged by Romeo Castellucci (discussed by my fellow correspondent Ben Brooker on this website) and Aleppo; A Portrait of Absence. Here ten actors told verbatim stories about life in war-torn Aleppo to audience members one-on-one. “The art of telling, the necessity of listening, is everything”; says the publicity. Storytelling, whether fact or fiction, is a response to the horror of war.

The Adelaide Fringe is the second largest in the world; of course, Edinburgh is first. Heavily weighted with comedians, the programme lists one hundred and forty-six performances under “Theatre”. Nearly all of these are new and locally created or on a world fringe circuit. Moliere’s Tartuffe, Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, and a seventy-minute The Tempest are among very few using existing scripts. Medea and Orpheus and Eurydice draw on Greek myth, and there’s a version of a Kafka story. The high figure is somewhat misleading, as many are present for only one or two of the four weeks. So if you attend the Adelaide Festival, before being excited by a description, check when the play is on and if it is at an accessible location. That there were thirty-nine “circus and physical theatre” performances struck me as surprisingly high, given that “magic” and “cabaret” have listings too.

The heart of the Fringe is located at Gluttony and Garden of Earthly Delights. These adjoining sites take over a large chunk of parks and each has some dozen theatre spaces, with a different show every two hours in each – all day at weekends and in the evenings on weekdays. Both have many places for eating and drinking and both drew big crowds when l was there. Holden Street Theatres, a bus ride from the city centre, gathers some of the more serious and ambitious plays.

I commend two shows which had appeared at Edinburgh Fringe. Tartuffe, adapted by Liz Lochhead, is set in Scotland in the 1940s and is cut to under an hour and to four characters. lt is in rhyming verse and assertively in Scots (English subtitles are provided, perhaps unnecessarily). The tone is relentlessly broad and farcical. I laughed a lot, even while missing complexities of characterization.

Lecoq-trained actors Jonathan Tilley and Jess Clough-MacRae perform Attenborough and his Animals, which they devised. The bulk of the script is verbatim David Attenborough taken from his many nature TV programmes. Tilley has the voice to perfection: reverential, amazed, breathy, observations ending unexpectedly, pauses in mid-sentence; slightly extended, these traits become comic. Equally impressive, Clough-MacRae plays everything from a crab to a whale, at her best perhaps as a baby seagull clamouring to be fed. She physicalizes each animal with a huge range of sounds. I am astonished by how well they sustained their show for an hour. Though very amusing, Attenborough and his Animals adds to our respect for the wonders of the animal world.