21st Melbourne International Arts Festival
One of the “early bird” punters, I found myself seated behind the Governor Dr Davis McCaughey and film director Ken Russell at Russell’s own production of Madama Butterfly in the brand spanking new State Theatre. That production -- in which Cio Cio was a mail-order bride-hooker in 1930s Nagasaki -- ended with a retina-scorching H-bomb blast. People stood and cheered, or stood and booed. Well, one person booed out loud, the rest quietly envied his courageous and mature response to a outrageous and immature production.
Yesterday, on one of the hottest October days on record in Melbourne, the curtain went up on the 21st Festival, which now trades as the Melbourne International Arts Festival after a recent and surreptitious changes of alias. (Perth can get away with having an International Arts Festival, it makes a cute acronym, but MIAF? Really...)
Tragedia Endogonidia BR.#04 Bruxelles
(Photograph: Luca del Pia, click on the image to enlarge)
By my reckoning, Melbourne’s arts festival has had almost as many names as it’s had artistic directors: seven and nine respectively. But that’s an observation rather than a criticism. It’s a reflection of the evolution of the festival and the on-going grappling with the need to find a purpose for a festival in an city that doesn’t actually need a festival.
Like Sydney, Melbourne is well catered for when it comes to the performing and visual arts. (For most of its first 20 years, the Sydney Festival was a transparent attempt to stop people leaving town in January... a perfectly respectable raison d’etre civically speaking!)
In the first few months of 1986, Melbourne was visited by Lauren Bacall (the fourth widow Bogart played the booze-soaked and forgotten film-star Alexandra Del Lago in Sweet Bird of Youth), heard the massed forces of the USSR State Symphony, saw the Royal Shakespeare Company (Antony Sher had a hunch he was going to be King Richard III), the brilliant Medieval Players and star baritone Håkan Hagegård in a most sublime recital. Melbourne also saw Philip Glass and his ensemble and the string soloists from the Berlin Philharmonic. The Australian Opera performed no fewer than eight productions in its Autumn season in the new theatres building of the new Victorian Arts Centre. Our theatres ranneth over.
According to Paul Clarkson, author of 1986-2005: the first 20 years, the impetus for an arts festival in Melbourne came from the top. In the winter of 1977, Premier Dick Hamer (who was also arts minister and treasurer) asked his arts council to investigate the possibility of having an arts festival -- “perhaps similar to Adelaide’s” -- in Melbourne. The advice he received was to wait for the completion of the Arts Centre, and that an annual festival could be managed by the Arts Centre.
Clarkson, a modest and thoughtful man, headed the state ministry for the arts and served on the board of the new festival from its foundation in 1984 until his retirement as a bureaucrat, 11 years later. His account of the genesis of the festival is concise and scrupulously fair.
Clarkson doesn’t gloss over the brutal treatment that the Melbourne media and its arts establishment dished out to ‘outsiders’ like Leo Schofield -- who rode it out quite spectacularly -- and Richard Wherrett... who got on his horse and rode out of town a year early.
With the softening of time, references to union action over the mass importation of talent, disputes over fugly arches over St Kilda Road, the recession that turned Melbourne into a tarnished buckle on the rust belt, all seem oddly benign.
The book is divided up into sections by artistic director, from the Menotti years to the Archer years, and it closes with a preview of the first Kristy Edmunds festival, last year. It briskly covers the visions of each director and the programs they oversaw. Like the challengers in Iron Chef, virtually every festival director bemoans the lack of lead time.
1997 director Clifford Hocking told me “it takes three to five years to do something effective and exciting. The companies that we want are booked five years ahead.” It was a sour irony for Hocking that he was invariably called upon to pull festivals together at the last minute. He had just two years to curate the 1990 Adelaide festival and less than 20 months to pull the 1997 Melbourne Festival together after Leo Schofield’s abrupt departure.
Clarkson writes about Hocking’s “black book” of contacts. Ultimately, it was this perceived need for international contacts that led to Melbourne hitching its artistic wagon to the tiny Italian town of Spoleto in the mid 1980s, to open the black book of the director of its festival “dei Due Mondi”, composer Gian Carlo Menotti.
In its first three years, ‘Spoleto’ had mixed success. It was loved by the aficionados who got to experience Nikolais Dance Theatre, Byakko-Sha and Cloudgate first hand; the English Shakespeare Company doing the entire War of the Roses cycle and the Comédie-Française... but it was hardly noticed by the wider community.
It took John Truscott to make it a festival of the people. And of the city. Wherrett and Schofield knew what they wanted, but perhaps not what Melbourne wanted; Hocking made it a Renaissance Festival... one that had comprehensive music and visual arts programs; Sue Nattrass gave it a conscience; Jonathan Mills gave it Bach; and Robyn Archer gave it Bollywood.
In her second festival, Edmunds is offering uncomfortable political reality. Rebellion. Resistence. A veritable insecurity council of disunited nations.
In the next two and a half weeks, Melbourne gets to sample recent work from The Actors’ Gang (George Orwell’s 1984), Richard Foreman (Now That Communism is Dead My Life Feels Empty), Romeo Castellucci (one instalment of his Tragedia Endogonidia), Peter Greenaway (Tulse Luper), Bill T Jones (Blind Date), Sekou Sundiata (51st [Dream] State), Dumb Type (Voyage), Robert Wilson (I La Galigo), Lucy Guerin (Structure and Sadness), Marie Brassard (Peepshow) and many others.
It’s not a festival for the masses, but that makes it all the more exciting. Watch this space!