What was going on? A near empty Drama Theatre for the opening of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Here was a play that, like Death of a Salesman and Waiting for Godot, sent a shock-wave through 20th-century theatre, yet was the only show I saw in January that was not nudging full capacity. With only two-mainstage productions in Sydney in the last 15 years, it hasn’t exactly been done to death, so why? Are Edward Albee’s fans are at more risk of COVID than other audiences? The alternatives – that there’s no longer much appetite for masterpieces, or no local interest in State Theatre Company South Australia’s work – are disturbing.
Of course COVID played havoc with Olivia Ansell’s first effort as festival director. Trying to second-guess travel restrictions must have been nightmarish, and so the festival became more of umbrella event – as perhaps it always should have been – lending its imprimatur to several shows that would have gone ahead, anyway.
The odd thing was that you could come away thinking that written into each contract was a clause that insisted upon flaws. Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country, using Bob Dylan’s songs to turn a play into a musical quite unlike any other, very slowly drew you into a quite complex drama – an impact that would have been intensified (and perhaps sped up) had the entire cast been acting on Lisa McCune’s stratospheric level as the dementia-afflicted Elizabeth.
Amy Campbell’s A Chorus Line whirled pleasantly along on her new choreography, especially as executed by Angelique Cassimatis and Brady Kitchingham, but was undermined by a budget necessitating backing tracks rather than a live band and by extremely uneven sound-mixing.
The triumph of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was Susan Prior brewing up a Martha who could massacre an entire faculty with a machinegun spray of words. The low was Juanita Navas-Nguyen being so wrong as Honey as to completely disrupt the play’s flick-knife balance of acrid relationships.
Deborah Pollard’s self-devised one-woman show, Slow Burn, about the 2003 firestorm that incinerated 488 Canberra homes, included the most emotionally devastating 15 minutes I experienced in the festival. But then she undercut this by adding a drawn-out coda that simply diluted the work.
The undoubted highlight for me was The Museum of Modern Love, Tom Holloway’s ingenious adaptation of Heather Rose’s luminous and mysterious novel. Director Timothy Jones assembled an eight-person cast of uncompromised quality (a rarity in this town), and all was in place for a world-class piece of drama, except that early on many lines were lost because of some members of the cast projected insufficiently in the cavernous York Theatre – presumably over-relying on microphones to do the work. An own goal.