What’s Past is Prologue

An article written for Adelaide Festival: 60 Years 1960 – 2020. A collection of essays on the Adelaide Festival written by former Artistic Directors and other notable artists. Jim was Artistic Director of the Adelaide Festival in 1982. 

What’s past is prologue (Shakespeare). Ancient gods, spirits and visions have more or less been vanquished, but festivals remain. Their roots are in communal ritual—the celebration of the harvest, the changing of the seasons and Corroboree. The Adelaide Festival (AF) has links to all these—and to pagan Greek festivals and the Elizabethans, who transformed sermons into soliloquies. The evolution of sermons continued into operatic arias, show tunes and today’s rap lyrics. 

Greek philosopher Plato felt the perfect state was one in which its citizens grieved and rejoiced over the same things. ‘Athenian audiences … wept openly, they applauded, hissed, booed, ate noisily, banged the wooden benches with their heels, threw food at the actors, as and when the mood took them.’ Does this sound familiar? A Festival where high and low mix, where performing arts, through carnival and catharsis, take on the thrill of a sports event. The audience trade their isolation for an act of shared imagination that reflects the wider world in all its folly and grandeur. However, it wasn’t always thus. 

The AF’s origins in the early 1960s reflected the prevailing Anglosphere of royal patronage, social conformity and the White Australia policy. The times were, however, a-changin’, and the Festival often controversially assisted Australia’s transition from provincial backwater to global player. It now faces new challenges from robotics, AI and hi-tech globalism. Let me reflect on this intriguing evolution from a personal perspective. 

AF64: I was an eager nineteen-year-old NIDA intern when I first darted around Colonel Light’s cross-hatched Adelaide streets from theatre to pie cart. A conflicted background in suburbia and travelling carnivals had whetted my appetite for cultural insight. 

John Bishop was the Festival’s founder and 1964 his third Festival. It established many important traditions— premieres of new operas (William Walton’s Troilus & Cressida), controversy (the AF Board rejecting Patrick White plays), modern Shakespeare (Tom Brown’s Tent staging of Henry V with John Bell and Anna Volska) and, important to young eyes, a new Australian work—Robert Helpmann’s visceral ballet The Display, with music by Malcolm Williamson and designs by Sidney Nolan. Each had a lasting impact—sexy Greek tragedy, epic Elizabethan sweep, and the idea that imported events could be balanced by export culture—original artworks from Oz. 

AF72: Now a fully-fledged enfant terrible director (aged twenty-seven), I returned to Louis van Eyssen’s Festival with a rock concert staging of Jesus Christ Superstar on Brian Thomson’s spectacular outdoor stage at Memorial Drive Tennis Courts, courtesy of producer Harry M. Miller. This raised or lowered standards, depending on your pop art proclivities. Superstar introduced AF to popular theatre and arena-style cheering and stamping. Cosmopolitan Don Dunstan reigned as SA Premier, the Festival Centre was under construction, wine and cuisine weaved their spell, and the ‘City of Churches’ was rebranded the ‘Athens of the South’. 

AF80: After an international stint followed by a rewarding period directing the previously spurned plays of Patrick White, I found myself in Adelaide staging the Oz premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice for Christopher Hunt’s Festival. It took Christopher a little nudging from General Manager Mary Vallentine and State Opera director Ian Campbell to entrust this prestigious premiere to a former enfant terrible (now thirty-five). However, by working with designers Brian Thomson, Luciana Arrighi and Rory Dempster, conductor Myer Fredman and tenor Robert Gard, we created a labyrinthine, dreamlike mirage that sufficiently enchanted audiences to remain in the operatic repertoire for thirty years. 

Christopher’s AF80 was successful yet contentious, as it involved change. A highlight—Peter Brook’s The Conference of the Birds in Anstey Hill Quarry. Under starry skies, an unforgettable inter-racial cast led by Miriam Goldschmidt conjured ancient ceremony. Along with their subsequent AF88 The Mahabharata, this introduced imaginative storytelling by racially diverse actors into the cultural mainstream. Brook’s work may even have encouraged Rob Brookman to introduce WOMADelaide in AF92. 

AF80’s genie of change, once released, couldn’t be returned to the bottle. Change extended to a surprise offer for me to direct AF82. On accepting, I turned to Mary Vallentine, who wryly shrugged, ‘I hate change!’ Smiling, I reassured her, ‘Don’t worry, I won’t say it. We’ll just do it.’ 

AF82: Adelaide has its share of cynical political observers and one advised me to, ‘Give the town a good time and they’ll allow you arty types to stare at a dripping tap for three hours’. This proved sage. As an artist AD, the first since Helpmann, I began commissioning other established artists and planned a Festival of premieres. Half the Board resigned and renewal took place. The problem with a festival of new work and premieres is public caution. Without official endorsement—such as, ‘Go see it!’ The New York Times—audiences are wary. 

By commissioning Patrick White (Signal Driver), David Hare (A Map of the World), Richard Meale and David Malouf (Voss extract), and Graeme Koehne (Rainforest). By inviting Pina Bausch’s incredible Tanztheater Wuppertal from Germany (Kontakthof1980Blaubart), premiering Elizabeth Söderström as Janáček’s time-travelling heroine in The Makropulos Affair directed by Elijah Moshinsky, and even with mainstream Circus Oz and Slim Dusty and The Comic Strip—who were yet to create legendary TV shows like Ab Fab and The Young Ones—the artistic temperature soared, but advance bookings didn’t. The answer lay in that sage advice and some old-school carnival instincts.

By replacing the ‘let them eat cake’ variety concert in Elder Park with top-line Festival artists, by floating brass bands down the river, exploding fireworks, serenading the town with wild, percussive Neapolitan troubadours, Adelaide said ‘Yes!’ And AF82 took off. Word spread fast. Adelaide flights and hotels booked out. This offered a lesson not lost on future Festivals, peaking with the very public jamboree of Red Square in fellow artist Barrie Kosky’s wonderful whirling dervish of a Festival in 1996.

Away from the glitz and fireworks were more personal reflections. Coming across Patrick White on an Adelaide railway bench, ‘I’m just an old man eating a pie. Leave me be.’ Seeing every performance of Pina Bausch’s 1980, a haunting memorial, dreamily enacted on grass, accompanied by sleazy bandoneons and elegant Purcell, all overseen by a Bambi-like deer. Introducing Patrick and Pina at a Greek restaurant in Hindley Street. Q: What happens when divas collide? A: Shy smiles.

Pina Bausch, Kontakthof

AF86: To the notable impact of Brook and Bausch on mainstream Oz culture, I would add the Rustaveli Theatre company’s Richard III. A highlight of Anthony Steel’s AF86this savage, tragic cabaret was brilliantly acted by this Georgian company led by the great Ramaz Chkhikvadze; its echoes would resound across many future Shakespearean productions. 

I returned to Anthony’s AF86 (aged forty-one) with the premiere of Richard Meale and David Malouf ’s game-changing opera of Voss. With the legendary Stuart Challender conducting and Thomson, Arrighi and Nigel Levings designing, with an all-star Opera Australia cast led by Geoffrey Chard and Marilyn Richardson as Voss and Laura, it signalled a newfound maturity in Australian creation. Voss joined the national opera repertoire. 

AF92, AF06: The import-export shuffle continued, but the idea of the AF commissioning, creating and producing work had taken hold. I returned with two productions. Shadow & Splendour, my Tokyo-based espionage drama, for Rob Brookman’s AF92, and Stephen Sewell’s searing portrait of Francis Bacon—Three Furies—for Brett Sheehy’s AF06. I sat on the Board for Robyn Archer’s two highly popular Festivals in 1998 and 2000 and remained for Peter Sellars’ provocative AF02. 

AF02: Sellars prioritised screen culture and surrounded himself with a radical, diverse team of gifted, mostly young associates. They dreamed big and commissioned wonderful movies like Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker. Peter attempted to involve Telstra in establishing tech hubs for global online performance networks from remote Indigenous communities to the Festival Centre—a global Corroboree. Difficult to explain and ultimately impossible to finance in a hostile political and media climate, it proved as impractical as it was visionary. An election loomed and Peter’s Festival plans became a liability. I regarded his enforced resignation as political and, in solidarity, I resigned from the Board. Ever cautious of the justification ‘ahead of its time’—it does seem to apply here. Peter’s championing of diversity encouraged the appointment of the inspiring Stephen Page as AD for AF04. 

AF18: Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy have both responded to AF history and expanded on it. At seventy- three, I was as excited as my nineteen-year-old self to be in the now rebranded Festival State and among the audience for Neil’s expressionist staging of Brett Dean’s thrilling opera of Hamlet. Building on the creative tradition of Helpmann’s Display and Meale’s VossHamlet was a magnificent addition to export culture and has taken its richly deserved place on the global stage. 

AF20: By the sixtieth year of AF, I will have seen many Festivals and contributed to a few. Festivals are often dismissed as event culture. I’d respectfully suggest that
if it isn’t an event, it isn’t culture. The only conclusion from my Adelaide odyssey is that the AF’s continuing evolution is dependent on each new generation engaging with the future. In this spirit, the reader might care to contemplate the Centenary AF in 2060. Guided by eyes inevitably attuned to the small screen rather than the page or stage and lives outsourced to computers and phones, will it be ‘live’? Global? Interstellar? Or time-travelled via intravenous chip? A startling thought. But so was wearing wristwatches—once. 

The past is prologue, the future a question posed by one generation and answered by another. As for prophecy? Well, let me recall the final words from Voss … the air will tell us. 

Jim Sharman – 2020