The Sydney Festival began 30 years ago as a way to lure shoppers and tourists into the city after Christmas. Always more reliant on sponsorship than Australia’s other more arty festivals, it was better known for its ferry races and outdoor entertainments than for anything startling in the arts department.

Things changed though with festival directors like advertising whiz Leo Schofield, then Brett Sheehy (who went on to Adelaide where his festival there starts in March) and now a 35-year-old charmer from Dublin called Fergus Linehan.

At the fabulous opening night party at Hyde Park Barracks, Linehan lined up vodkas for quick toasts to the artists who on Saturday opened his first Sydney Festival.

And who are they? A remarkable troupe of Moscow actors staging an all-male version of Twelfth Night in Russian. And that theatrical magician Robert Lepage whose solo post-modern show leaps through time and place and runs for over two hours.

As openers, Linehan has already delivered to those of us who want to see something original and startling at festival time. Still to come are the thrills of Sylvie Guillem and George Piper Dances; Elvis Costello and his multiple musical collaborations across three nights; and the haunting androgyny of Antony and his band The Johnsons -“ who’ll give our own Paul Capsis a run for his high notes.

By programming such figures in contemporary music, Fergus continues Brett Sheehy’s initiatives to draw younger audiences to the festival. He has also cut ticket prices and introduced a strong program at the Opera House called About An Hour -“ for those who want shorter shows, and cheaper prices.

He’s brought a sharper focus to the symphony and jazz concerts outdoors in the Domain. He’s also maintained the busy schedule of acts appearing in Parramatta, accepting the reality that most of Sydney is closer to there than the Opera House. But, yes, he has kept the old Ferrython.

In finding a new balance between high art and populism, Fergus must have been relieved when the NSW government recently kicked in more cash for the festival -“ but he’s still dependent on the sponsors.

His biggest sponsor died last month. As widow Ros Packer sat in the opening night audience of Twelfth Night, Fergus stepped up to celebrate what Kerry Packer and his Channel Nine had contributed to the Festival.

(Clover Moore must share the same anxiety about who is going to pay for her next New Year fireworks -“ Packer was a big contributor to that and the little known deal expired just a few days after he did.)

It’s mind boggling though to think what big Kerry would have made of lots of Russian blokes cross-dressing in the name of Shakespeare. Comprehension wasn’t helped by badly timed surtitles which flashed irregularly with the English. Some punters who didn’t know Twelfth Night crept away at interval without knowing much more.

Certainly the wonderful wit of Shakespeare’s bittersweet play about unrequited love and mistaken identities was almost lost to us, but the gusto and clarity of these performances redeemed all.

Shakespeare of course wrote all his plays for all-male casts and this one especially thrills in the knowing irony of men as romancing females, one of whom, for love’s strange purpose, disguises her/ himself as a man. Order is restored by the end but much wisdom is aired in the joy of the confusion.

This is no gay theatre but queer audiences especially will delight in what today we call the performance of gender. And it is superbly directed and cleanly designed, respectively, by Britain’s Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod. For 25 years they’ve been partners and collaborators with their famed Cheek By Jowl company.

And similarly don’t be scared off by the arty reputation of Montr?’s Robert Lepage. I first fell for him at an Adelaide Festival 10 years ago, after seeing his Seven Streams Of The River Ota. It was a huge, multimedia, big cast epic which took its global themes through multiple times, countries and 20th century catastrophes.

Here in The Andersen Project Lepage is solo, playing a self-effacing Canadian writer brought to Paris, housed in a sex shop and vaguely commissioned to write a kid’s opera by a dubious French producer. His life and loneliness unravel, as does the domestic life of his producer.

Through it all runs a parallel fable by Hans Christian Andersen. Lepage was commissioned last year by the Danish government to create a homage to their famous writer, and this is his somewhat navel-gazing reaction to the task.

Through the wizardry of his projections, puppetry and digital tricks, this is a touching portrait of loss and displacement which if anything is closer to being banal than high art. But Lepage’s compassion for the ordinary in all of us makes this project near spellbinding.

Twelfth Night at the Theatre Royal closes on Saturday and The Andersen Project at the Sydney Theatre on Sunday.

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