I am aroused, again, by life. Where lately there was fatigue, there now is rapture. Where once there was despair, there now is infatuation. The Festival of Sydney has ravished me with awe-inspiring beauty, with breathtaking imagination and with genuine excitement.
Transe Express’s The Celestial Bells is that rarest of outdoor spectaculars -“ an event which manages to use the theatrics of acrobatics, pyrotechnics, and structural engineering to speak meaningfully about human existence. To me it spoke metaphorically of mortality, as a chandelier of live musicians spun above me, making ethereal music in the pose of marionettes. Above them a drunken bell ringer continued to laugh maniacally -“ the chaotic hand of fate wheeling above us all. When three female acrobats began to whirl and hover from the metal structure that had been lifted hundreds of metres into the air by a giant red crane, it became literally about mortality -“ the daredevil appeal of the circus magnified by the sheer magnitude of distance from the ground.
What are they, daddy, what are they? cried a little girl behind me.
They’re beautiful fairies, replied her father.
It’s all about medieval life in Europe, I heard another woman say. The beginning is about the ways in which life was once dominated by the ringing of bells, and the movement onto the metal structure is about the transformation and ordering of life by the industrial revolution.
For a crowd to be conjecturing about the meaning of art at a free outdoor event is a stunning victory for Transe Express and for festival director Brett Sheehy, for whom these beautiful fairies might confidently be said to be playing his song.
The irresistible theatrical conceit of The Flood Drummers is the employment of live actors as life-size puppets, each with their own black-shrouded puppeteer. The narrative is of an ancient Asian dominion where a choice must be made to flood one area to save another, and, of course, it is the brave female warrior who defeats the war-mongering nephew (or was that the president’s son?) to save the peasants. Every moment on stage is infused with a compelling intimacy between the performer and the manipulator as they perfectly create the illusion of a puppet playing a person.
That many of the performers, especially Lord Khang and the Secretary Wang Po, transported me into their genuine pathos is a shuddering testament to their extraordinary skill. Director Mnouchkine’s remarkable vision has been to find a new emotional language for human performers, and it is the distinctive emotional language of puppets.
When I noticed the Sydney Lord Mayor sitting several rows away from me, it made Lord Khang’s choices all the more intriguing. Should he save the library or the business district? Should he fund the artists or the merchants? Was this a play about rationalising a 1000AD dominion or a 2000AD council district?
Stranger Than Truth, at the Australian Centre for Photography, is an exhibition which flirts outrageously with an audience’s desire to be cleverly duped. Peter Fitzpatrick’s Latitude 79 Degrees Five Minutes South is a riveting memorial to Robert Scott’s fateful expedition to the South Pole in 1912. The artist cleverly uses the dramatic idea of Scott’s nearly reached supply point to create a nearly reached truth of his own -“ with self-portraits and ephemera from the expedition, only one of which, he enticingly tells us, is authentic. Fitzpatrick boldly disputes the indomitability of truth and uses our shifted perceptions to claim a victory for Scott, outside the dichotomies of fact and fiction, winning and losing, or even living and dying. Charmaine Hardy and Simon Strong, with their poster for Domestic Gods, a never-made film about men’s role in the domestic environment, list Baby Wrangler, Pregnant Man and Corporate Bitch among their credits, in a witty and perceptive reflection on gender issues. Peter Hill, the curator, has persuasively assembled visual testimony to the fact that truth is an illusion while reminding us of the pleasure of being taken for a ride.