As Melbourne Festival director Josephine Ridge prepares to usher in the 30th anniversary of this vibrant cornerstone of the city’s cultural calendar, she took time out from her crazy schedule to tip off Urban Listers on the must-see shows and her grand ambitions for this year’s line-up.
“It’s been very much about trying to ensure that the festival has a really Melbourne feel to it,” Ridge says. “The anniversary really focuses on that, inviting you to look backwards, assess where you are now and to think about the future, because that’s what anniversaries do.”
She’s really proud of the New York Narratives project that connects North Melbourne’s Arts House with New York-based independent theatre venue Performance Space 122, bringing a host of exciting international talent.
Past Melbourne Festival shows that have gone on to enjoy success overseas include stunning circus act Opus by Circa, Chunky Move’s Complexity of Belonging and The Shadow King, the Malthouse Theatre’s Indigenous retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, headed to London’s Barbican Theatre.
“That’s probably the most exciting venue in London I think, although the Young Vic is doing amazing things, I should add.”
Whatever you settle on, Ridge recommends checking out the festivities at the Foxtel Festival Hub between Princes Bridge and the boat sheds on the edge of the Yarra. It’s joined this year by an additional Spiegeltent.
“The hub gives us the opportunity to create a social environment where people can meet, chat and meet artists as well, making the most of that buzz and energy the festival has. It’s a fantastic environment because the weather, of course, will be perfect. We’ve arranged that.”
Josephine's Top Ten
British theatre company Headlong’s blockbuster adaptation of George Orwell’s classic dystopia 1984 may be more than 65 years old, but Ridge says it’s as relevant now as ever.
“All these themes about privacy, surveillance, the re-working of history for political advantage, the use of language to wield power and control, they’re very topical.”
As well as the stage show at Arts Centre Melbourne, there will be several satellite events so you can dig deeper into the text, including an eight-hour live reading at Parliament House with speakers including Julian Burnside QC, Arts Minister Martin Foley and the Greens’ Adam Bandt, talks at the NGV and a film program at ACMI.
In the vein of The Shadow King, Nobel Laureate author Toni Morrison takes another look at Shakespeare’s Othello, but this time through the eyes of his lover Desdemona. Tina Benko takes the lead role with live music performed by Malian singer Rokia Traoré, who also plays Desdemona’s maid Barbary. Theatrical luminary Peter Sellars directs.
“Desdemona’s a wonderful exploration of all the motivations at work in the play,” Ridge says. “It’s very simply done, but just captivating and Southbank Theatre’s The Sumner is an intimate venue which is the perfect scale for the audience to connect with it in a beautiful way.”
Patti Smith’s Horses
Get in quick! The first Melbourne Town Hall tribute to the debut album of the New York rock ‘n’ roll queen who subverted the genre sold out quick smart, but Melbourne Festival have added an extra night for Patti Smith's Horses, led by Australian artist Courtney Barnett in cahoots with Jen Cloher, Adalita and Gareth Liddiard.
“That’s just a wonderful combination of a seminal album from an extraordinary woman and these amazing Australian artists, particularly Courtney whose international career has taken off big time,” Ridge says. “It will be a fabulous night, really energetic and fun.”
32 Rue Vandenbranden
Belgian outfit Peeping Tom return to Melbourne Festival bringing their peculiar brand of physical theatre in a mash-up of dance, slapstick and the cinematic with 32 Rue Vandenbranden.
“It’s quite bleak in a way, but it’s an extraordinary experience for the audience,” Ridge assures. “The setting is a sort of trailer park in some nondescript, cold-looking northern environment. It’s dark but incredibly theatrical with fantastic music from Stravinsky to Pink Floyd.”
One of the New York Narratives at Arts House, writer and performer Okwui Okpokwasili’s powerful debut Bronx Gothic is an intimate, one-women monologue delivered in a most physical way.
“It’s a monologue about two young girls, probably about 11, who exchange letters and notes and it’s about their awakening sexuality,” Ridge says. “The audience are seated within a sort of curtained area on three sides so the connection with Okwui is incredible. It’s a very powerful performance.”
Indie kid Kate Miller-Heidke goes back to her operatic roots with this family-friendly adaptation of John Marsden and Shaun Tan’s treasured picture book The Rabbits.
“She’s proven herself to be an extraordinary composer ranging across styles, going back to her early training in the opera and she performs in it as well,” Ridge says. “It’s a sort of analogy of the coming of the British to Australia, so we have the rabbits and the marsupials and the havoc that the rabbits wreak on the land and the culture.”
Another kid-friendly highlight is esteemed actress and playwright Kate Mulvaney’s adaptation of the Kit Williams picture book Masquerade. Directed by Sam Strong and Lee Lewis, it’s woven in with Mulvaney’s own childhood experience of cancer and the restorative power of losing yourself in magical tales.
“The liberating effect it had on her has stayed with Kate her whole life,” Ridge says. “It’s fun and colourful with live music by Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen. It’s so important young people are exposed to really high-quality work.”
Cinema buffs will be salivating at the arrival of Clint Mansell who sadly had to pull out of last year’s Melbourne Festival. He’s responsible for some of the most incredible movie scores, including regularly collaborating with Darren Aronofsky who directed Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, Pi and, most recently, Noah, not to mention teaming up with Patti Smith.
Appearing with a nine-piece band, there will also be a visual component too, befitting a cinematic hero. The first Melbourne Recital Centre sold out sharpish, but they’ve added a second night.
“Finally we have him,” Ridge says. “Requiem for a Dream will stay with me for my entire life as one of the most extraordinary films I’ve ever seen. There’s so much mood and atmosphere in his work.”
Packing a swag of awards in their suitcases, Strut and Fret’s circus cum burlesque act Limbo will take over the mirrored environs of the Foxtel Festival Hub’s Spiegeltent.
“The skill base for this show is really extraordinary,” Ridge says. “It’s got quite an edge to it and amazing music.”
In another classic re-envisioned, rising talents Adena Jacobs and Aaron Orzech team up with St Martins youth theatre group and St Kilda’s Theatre Works to present ancient Greek playwright Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae starring a teenage all-female cast.
“It has young people in it, but it’s not a play for children,” Ridge warns. “It’s a very powerful and in some ways quite dangerous adaptation, with live music by Kelly Ryall.”
And here’s our sneaky bonus pick:
Katie Noonan’s Vanguard
Sporting a sheer-cropped, peroxide blonde look that pops, Aria Award-winning Noonan has a new band album, Transmutant, to show off with help from her new band Vanguard.
Ridge is a fan. “She’s got such a warm personality, as well as that extraordinary voice.”
Image credit: Brett Boardman for Melbourne Festival