Sydney Festival Wrap

Olivia Ansell at the 2022 Frida Kahlo installation. Photo: Wendell Teodoro.

Olivia Ansell has proved a shrewd appointment as Sydney Festival’s artistic director. If arts festivals are intended to surprise us and present performances we’d otherwise be unlikely to see, then Ansell’s three events accumulatively outshine all since Fergus Linehan’s 2006-09 burst. But 2024 was not her best. It’s not just that nothing matched the mind-explosion that was last year’s Frida Kahlo: Life of an Icon, because nor was there anything as dire as Holding Achilles. It’s more that nothing made you bleed internally the way Girls & Boys did last year.

This year’s highlight was Anoushka Shankar’s Opera House concert, when she and her brave new quintet rose high above her previous Australian performances. Each of Shankar’s sitar notes seemed miraculously shaped into the consonants and vowels of speech, so her melodic lines cast multi-layered spells. Drawing on pan-Indian classical traditions, the music was so finely interwoven with other idioms that the seams were invisible.

Anoushka Shankar. Photo: Jacquie Manning.

The festival limped into action with the musical Bananaland, penned by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttal, which had too few good songs and too many lame jokes. Indonesia’s Papermoon Puppet Theatre charmed with A Bucket of Beetles, although its dramaturgy fell well below the standard of the puppetry. Big Name, No Blankets, a musical about Warumpi Band, and Tiddas, Anita Heiss’s adaptation of her novel about five women turning 40, suffered the same malaise: engaging dramas failed to materialise because the former couldn’t shrug aside lived history and the latter couldn’t escape the novel’s structure.

Damien Ryan as Timon of Athens. Photo: Kathy Luu.

Belgium’s Ontroerend Goed company devised Are we not drawn onward to new erA, the palindromic title of which mirrored the work’s form, amid which synapse-firing poetic images and William Basinski’s disquieting music were ultimately upstaged by excessively bald didacticism. We get that climate change is catastrophic, but in a theatre a whisper is a shout. From the UK came Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, which begged us not trust it any more than we should trust conspiracy theories. It contained profundities to relish and inanities to forgive, while intriguingly obliterating its own rules and most theories about theatre.

Easily the most significant and moving play during January came not from the festival, but from local independent company Sport for Jove. Damien’s Ryan’s performance in the title role of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens joins Anoushka Shankar as the month’s most treasured memories.