Melbourne International Arts Festival was first staged in 1986 under a different name – Spoleto Melbourne – and has carried several other names since. Covering dance, theatre, music, visual arts and multimedia, as well as free and outdoor events, it is held every October.
The 2019 Festival runs from the 2nd to the 20th of the month across a range of venues. The Blurb will add to its list of reviews of Festival shows below (with the most recent at the top).
For more information and to buy tickets, go to https://www.festival.melbourne/2019/
The Nico Project, at Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
A descent into the abyss. Maxine Peake as Nico – singer, songwriter, actor, model and muse – is a tour de force, the inspiration for some of the world’s preeminent artists. In The Nico Project, the femme fatale is a cacophony of confusion, doubt and self-loathing.
Dressed in black, with an oversize khaki shirt, long boots and an overcoat, her sanity no longer intact, she stumbles and bumbles her way through a lexicon which probably only makes sense to her. For us – the audience – it is left to interpret as we will. She loved the fame but it also served to emasculate her.
Nico was born Christa Päffgen in Germany on 16th October, 1938. As she grew tall, statuesque and beautiful, she learned to speak English and French and moved around a lot, attracting men wherever she went. Among her admirers were Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Italian filmmaker and screenwriter Federico Fellini, Ernest Hemingway, French movie star Alain Delon, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and Andy Warhol. It was Warhol who installed her as the front woman of the New York rock band the Velvet Underground. She became a drug addict, but died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 18th July, 1988 at the age of 49.
In The Nico Project parts of her tale are told with the help of a highly talented 15-piece, young, female orchestra playing conventional and rarer instruments, including kettle drums, tubular bells and a harmonium. Eerily they are all dressed in uniforms reminiscent of the Hitler Youth during Nazi Germany when Nico grew up. A high point comes when the stage is darkened and the orchestra members leave their seats and to a haunting melody prowl about the stage. The music is evocative. Nico’s anguish, despair and desperation are evident throughout. She is a tortured soul, whose struggles can only have one end.
Decidedly esoteric, I dare say those used to a straight narrative will find themselves lost for this is theatre of the mind, bended and twisted for dramatic effect. The piece was created by Maxine Peake and Sarah Frankcom and directed by the latter, with music by Anna Clyne and text by E.V. Crowe. Sixty minutes without interval, The Nico Project is playing at Playhouse at Arts Centre Melbourne until 19th October, 2019.
Grand Finale, at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
A Grand Finale, indeed – in name and nature. Innovative, evocative, engaging – mesmerising even – this is one of the finest examples of highly creative, energetic and fluid contemporary dance melded with exemplary musicality. It is the work of a genius in both art forms, Hofesh Shechter. He is responsible for both the choreography and the original score.
Ten incredibly fit dancers and five talented musicians – the latter dressed as if on the Titanic – on strings and synthesizer bring to life Shechter’s vision and do so with distinction. With toned arms and legs flailing, the former make quite a first impression against a semi darkened canvas. There is a richness about the synchronised perpetual motion that ensues.
But that is only part of the story, as Grand Finale is also passionate and tender, sensual and graceful. There are vignettes of heartfelt loss. In short, this troupe elevates the art form to a higher plane. In their hands, a gentle side to side sway becomes meaningful.
The only props are seven thick, dark coloured screens, each wider than a set of outstretched arms and as tall as two men standing atop one another. These are readily moved around at will.
The range of music is another striking element of the production – from intense and rhythmic to playful and nurturing. As a whole it is such an alluring soundscape. The musicians appear, disappear and reappear stage left, middle and right – the lighting design by Tom Visser integral to the magic “now you seen them, now you don’t” approach. Even during interval – the first act is nearly an hour and the second almost half an hour – the good natured musos orchestrate a sing along.
The camaraderie within the company is apparent because they are as one throughout, taking us – the audience – on a remarkable journey, one well worth embarking upon. It is up to each of us to interpret what we are seeing and hearing as we will. To me, the piece speaks to the breakneck speed in which most lives our lives, with chaos and confusion prevalent. But then there are moments to stop and reflect on the way forward and other periods to let loose and be playful, joyful and triumphant.
The afternoon I attended, Grand Finale received a well-deserved standing ovation. The excitement in the auditorium at what we were witnessing was palpable. Long may the UK-based Hofesh Shechter Company reign. It is playing at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 13th October, 2019.
A Brimful of Asha, at Beckett Theatre, Malthouse Theatre
There is nothing quite like family … especially parents trying to meddle in the marital affairs of the younger of their two sons. The year is 2007. Ravi Jain is 27 and not a doctor or lawyer, rather – horror of horrors – a trained actor trying to form his own company. That, of course, means he is all but penniless.
Ravi is part of a proud Indian family, brought up in Toronto by his traditional parents who are strong believers in arranged marriages. Indeed, his mother, Asha, married less than a month after she set eyes upon her future husband (Ravi’s father), moving from India to Canada in 1974. That was after they were engaged the day after they met.
Now they will do everything in their power to find the perfect match for their beloved son. And that means scheming – and so much of it – behind his back. To give you some idea of the lengths they will go to – they think nothing of placing an ad for prospects in an Indian newspaper. They are prepared to scour the lengths and breadth of the world’s second most populous nation.
Complete with photographic and audio evidence, this is Ravi’s true story as unlocked in its charming and intricate detail by him and his mother. Such a glorious first-hand account you must see to believe and admire. It is a case of he said/she said. Their love and affection for one another is clear from the outset when they meet the audience one by one and offer us delicious samosas.
That they have different points of view is a given. They argue – bicker to the point of verbal fisticuffs and tears – but the story unfolds with a great deal of warmth and heart. It is all done in fun. Much of it is downright hilarious. I assure you I am not kidding. Asha’s dry one liners and Ravi’s cheeky reposts so naturally delivered make for a compelling theatrical exchange in what is a heightened reality. A Brimful of Asha is witty and wonderful. Let’s call it out for what it is: tall tales but true from the (recent) legendary past.
A Brimful of Asha started as improv after Ravi announced to his mum that he was making a show about her attempts to micromanage his life. Ravi, who wrote and directs the piece, conceived and refined it over two years and it has since played around the world over the past eight years. This is its triumphant, laugh inducing Australian premiere season.
Incidentally, the title is drawn from a song written by British alternative rock band Cornershop. I should add that Asha in Hindi means hope. Ninety minutes without interval, A Brimful of Asha is playing at Beckett Theatre at Malthouse Theatre until 13th October, 2019.
Grey Rock, at Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse Theatre
What do ordinary Palestinians lack? Hope … a positive way forward. At least that is the view expressed by award-winning writer and director Amir Nizar Zubai in his new play Grey Rock, which was first performed in New York in January. This is a story that focuses on a father and his daughter.
We learn that Yusuf published an illegal pamphlet that saw him sent to prison for five years when his daughter – his only child – was only seven years of age. Years later, Yusuf (Khalifa Natour) lives with his dutiful adult daughter Lila (Fidaa Zaidan). His beloved wife (her mother) passed away three years ago. After that Lila gave up her own ambitions to ensure his wellbeing.
She is now engaged to Jawad (Alaa Shehada) and he has grand plans for how the couple are going to live after they get married. He’s already put a down payment on the furniture at the best shop in town. Lila can’t but help notice that her father has been spending time on getting fit and she suspects that he is seeing a new woman. She wants to assure him that is perfectly all right, but in reality something very different is behind her father’s actions.
On the quiet, using a religious leader, Sheik (Motaz Malhees) – who happens to be the son of his best friend, now deceased – as an intermediary, Yusuf has gone about liquidating his assets. The reason behind it comes as quite a shock to us – the audience – as it does to all the characters in the piece as his secret leaks out and quickly spreads. At first, they think Yusuf – a former television repairman – is crazy, but let’s just say the mood changes. Although most reluctant to take on a partner in his scheme, Yusuf begrudgingly accepts the help of local delivery man Fadel (Ivan Azazian). Like Lila, he too has left behind his academic ambitions to help in his father’s greengrocer store, but more accurately for love.
Grey Rock is tale of heart and soul, a rallying cry about big thinking … about finding a way out of an invidious situation. The devil, in this case, is the military regime in Palestine, which is subjugating freedom of thought, ambition and drive. It is a beautifully told and realised story that combines drama, with pathos and good humour.
Zaidan is outstanding and perfectly nuanced as the intelligent daughter who sees and feels so much. Natour is easy to accept as a man on a mission, someone who treads a fine line between persistence, vitriol, indignation and yearning. The other cast members, too, are able to channel their characters’ respective mojos with personality and pride.
The wide stage features a large white curtain made of blinds. The action takes place in front of it and with the blinds on the right-hand side lifted. Behind them is Yusuf’s makeshift workshop, filled with scaffolding, blueprints and an engineer’s desk. Production design is by Tal Yarden.
Ninety minutes without interval, Grey Rock is a visionary, aspirational and heart-felt piece of theatre. It is imaginative, moving and amusing and is playing at Merlyn Theatre at Malthouse Theatre until 12th October, 2019.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Anthem (Arts Centre Melbourne) – theatre review
- Next to Normal (Brisbane Arts Theatre) – Theatre Review
- Wake in Fright (Malthouse Theatre) – theatre review
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre