Wednesday, February 17, 2021




Neil Armfield's production of Benjamin Britten's
A Midsummer Night's Dream. -
Streaming at the 2021 Adelaide Festival

Adelaide Festival 2021. 

Artistic Directors Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy. General Manager Elaine Chia. February 26 – March 14 2021. Bookings:, Bass 131246.

Previewed by Peter Wilkins


Co-Artistic Directors Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy
                                                                        Photo by Shane Reid

Adelaide’s illustrious arts festival narrowly escaped the unexpected impact of the Corona virus in 2020. Co-Artistic Directors Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy’s highly successful fourth annual festival was granted a dispensation so that it could continue to offer its final days of the festival that came to an auspicious end on the Ides of March. On March 22nd Australia closed its borders and the nation went into virtual lockdown in a desperate attempt to protect the people from the pandemic. This had a devastating effect on the arts industry nationally and South Australia’s various festivals in particular. This year the Adelaide Festival will go ahead from February 26th to March 14th, with observance of the Covid restrictions. International companies will not be bringing their live productions to Adelaide. Covid restrictions such as social distancing will have a considerable effect on ticket sales and income.  The uncertainty of border closures and possible lockdowns adversely threatened the arrival of visitors from other states and Armfield and Healy and their team at the Adelaide Festival office faced a swathe of probable upsets. These are challenges that also confront the director of Writer’s Week Jo Dyer and Ian Scobie who directs Womad, both of which come under the umbrella of the Adelaide Festival.

“We didn’t want to begin with how hard it’s been.” Armfield and Healy write in their introduction to this year’s brochure.”It’s been hard for everyone.” At the start of our conversation I mention to Healy that in Chinese the characters that make up the word for crisis contain the meaning of opportunity. A glance through the programme reveals the determination of all artists and companies to seize the opportunity to make the 17 days and nights  a festival “of beauty and ideas, of pleasures and joys. And revelation.”

From the free opening event, featuring the amazing Jessica Mauboy to the closing indigenous Hip Hop Finale, featuring the phenomenal talents of Ziggy Ramo, JK-47, Jimblah and J-Milla, the 2021 Adelaide Festival has turned the crisis that has gripped the world into an opportunity to bring to audiences the very best that the arts have to offer.

More than that, Armfield and Healey have grabbed the chance to view the festival that is designed to bring people together in a new light. Inspired by a visit to the Darwin Festival in August last year Healy really began to distill the essence of what makes the Adelaide Festival the Adelaide Festival. “Darwin’s Festival was such a reminder that after so many months of fear and isolation being without people was a source of great anxiety. In some ways the opportunity to come together in a Covid safe way, share a drink and a meal at a stage with music performance of some kind is such a primal need for everyone and it was a back to basics experience and so joyous. It was a reminder that people need to be with each other with performance at its centre. Being with each other is what it comes down to.”

This epiphany was the inspiration for the inclusion in the programme of Ngarku’adlu, an exclusive four course dinner with South Australian gin and wines on the final weekend of the festival. Surrounded by the unique collection at the South Australian Museum and in collaboration with the University of Adelaide, the meal will be prepared by the finest First Nation chefs and suppliers interwoven with stories and knowledge shared by the cultural leaders of the Kaurna, Adnyamathanha, Ngarrindjeri and Narrunga nations. Healy explains. “We felt that the one thing that was really obvious apart from the fact that we want to be together and need to be together as a species was that we have been ransacking supermarkets and stockpiling toilet paper and pasta, but we have not learnt from the opportunity to learn from the original custodians of the land. And learn how we feed ourselves from the land we live and work on.”

Circumstance drives innovation. The fact that one project involving performers from fourteen African nations could not come to the festival prompted a search for greater Australian ventures. Some shows that had been programmed for ’22 and ’23 were brought forward. One on One concerts were adopted from a German lockdown innovation whereby an audience member would be taken to an unannounced place to meet a musician. They would sit and gaze at each other for a while in a mutual connection that would culminate in the musician then playing a piece of music for that individual audience member. “ Live performance is that exchange between the performer and the artist, the gift that an artist needs to give and that nourishes the audience” Healy says.

BLKDOG Photo by Camilla Greenwell
One major challenge that Healy and Armfield faced was how to include an international component  in the programme.  The Live From Europe series is such an initiative. “We are really excited about live streaming.” Healy says.  We’ve all been doing it, but in this case Ivo van Hove’s production of Medea for International Theater Amsterdam, Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia’s production of Eugene Onegin, Botis Seva’s dance work BLKDOG from Far From Norm and Sadler’s Wells  and the virtuoso playing of Beethoven by prolific “lockdown” musician Igor Levit  will all be streamed live from Europe. Cameras will stream the event in both directions, catching both the performance and audience reactions as though they were present at the performance taking place on the other side of the globe.


Other surprises wait in store for Adelaide audiences accustomed to innovation and experimentation. New York installation artist and puppeteer will confront and amaze people with her free installation in the city’s Rundle Mall. Robin Frohardt will bring The Plastic Bag Store to Adelaide for the first  time  outside New York. Audiences enter a constructed supermarket in which everything in the store is made out of plastic bags gathered on the streets of New York. People who reserve tickets will also be given a free tour by Frohart, guaranteed to make you never see a supermarket in the same light again. Healy urges me to watch the trailer to whet the appetite for this thought-provoking experience.

It is time to turn attention back to Australian highlights in the programme. “Neil and I really love bringing back those absolutely seminal moments of Australian Theatre.”  It was quite by chance that Back to Back Theatre was remounting its work, Small Metal Objects, which I had seen performed at the Flinders Street Station during a Melbourne Festival many years before. This will be the first time that Back to Back Theatre has given a public performance for Adelaide audiences. Disabled performers explore the notion of how a person’s worth may be determined by their productivity. Sitting with earphones to catch the snatches of dialogue, this is street theatre with a difference, a revelation that remains vivid in my memory all these years later.

Small Metal Objects
Another regular event at the Adelaide Festival is Restless Theatre, a movement ensemble of performers with various disabilities who will present Guttered, set in a bowling alley and examining the entitlement of people to fail. Often the gutters are blocked so that people with disabilities will always score a hit. In Guttered, choreographer Michelle Ryan removes the barriers so that bowlers can learn from their failures as well as celebrate their successes.

Neil Armfield was not present at our discussion. He is far too busy, having to supervise the streaming of his production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Festival’s new Hub The Summerhouse as well as direct the Australian premiere of A German Life by Christopher Hampton with Australia’s legendary actress, Robin Nevin in the role of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbel’s  secretary during the Second World War. Healy saw Dame Maggie Smith play the role at The Bridge Theatre in London and has no doubts that Nevin’s performance will be electric.

Robyn Nevin in A German Life. Photo James Green
Out of crisis, Healy and Armfield have seized the opportunity to put together a programme that is as vibrant, innovative and surprising as any during their past festivals. And wait, there’s more! David Gulpilil’s remarkable film career will be recognized in a retrospective of his films as well as a special screening of the documentary My Name is Gulpilil at the Festival Theatre. Unable to tour internationally as planned, Adelaide’s phenomenal physical theatre troupe Gravity and Other Myths will perform The Pulse at the recently refurbished Her Majesty’s Theatre with Aurora’s young Adelaide voices.  Belvoir’s Fangirls will also be staged at Her Majesty’s Theatre before it visits the Canberra Theatre Centre later in March. The festival will come to a resounding close in the Festival Theatre with a performance of Michael Tippett’s choral work, A Child of Our Time.

In a festival not to be missed, Healy and Armfield have stood by that age old theatre saying “The show must go on” And what a show it has turned out to be!

Adelaide Festival

February 26 – March 14


Book at BASS on 131246