A Sydney Festival of dreams and confrontations

Frida Kahlo. Photo David Ruano. Top: ROOM. Photo: Manon Bollery.

This was more like it: as well as smaller, quirkier shows, Sydney Festival was back to the extravaganzas only it could host. Frida Kahlo: The Life of an Icon, created by Barcelona’s Layers of Reality, was a cutting-edge audiovisual exploration of this revolutionary Mexican artist. Virtual-reality headsets let you plumb the hallucinatory world inside her paintings, and a holograph made poetic the excruciating accident that smashed Kahlo’s pelvis and spine. Go and lose yourself in her life and work before March 7.

Almost as good was ROOM, conceived by and starring Charlie Chaplin’s grandson, James Thierree, leading his Swiss-based Compagnie du Hanneton. Rather than via story, this investigated its title via surreal images, dance, mime, aerial acrobatics and wildly diverse live music. Thierree is a virtuoso of multidiscipline art, and his magic made your brain’s synapses feel like fireworks were going off. He also restored the adjective “surreal” from idle cliche to meaning truly dreamlike.

Girls & Boys. Photo: Matt Byrne.

Alas, a third big-ticket event, Holding Achilles, like Troy, fell victim to something wooden: the acting and dialogue. Highlighting the love between Achilles and Patroclus, the show had only one moment of gutting emotional truth. Otherwise, this Legs on the Wall/Dead Puppet Society collaboration relied on visuals, and they were only intermittently striking, while the music, with live singing from Montaigne, succumbed to predictability.

Next to Frida Kahlo, the festival’s triumph was Girls & Boys, Dennis Kelly’s play for one actor about human disintegration, expertly directed by Mitchell Butel for State Theatre Company South Australia. Wry at first, as we saw the thinning patience and negotiated settlements of motherhood, the narrative gradually morphed from scattered fragments to pin-spot focus, and Justine Clarke’s performance shifted gears accordingly, until she left you emotionally scorched in a furnace of the unimaginable.

Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream.

Another standout one-hander, Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream, was a comic parable twisting and turning between ice cream and vultures, penned by actor Jacob Rajan and director Justin Lewis of New Zealand’s Indian Ink Theatre Company. Joined by an astonishingly lifelike vulture puppet, Rajan’s portrayal of seven characters was so sharp that you never lost track of who was speaking, even in rapid-fire, three-way conversations.

Blighting this year’s festival was its apathy toward the vast area of improvisation-based music, with Hamed Sadeghi’s performance the worthy exception.