Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Perth Festival: It's a wrap!

This year’s Perth Festival gave us a clear indication of its director Jonathan Holloway’s vivacious, egalitarian view of the arts.
I doubt that Holloway has an elitist bone in his body, but he does have a tailor’s instinct for the warp and weft of artists and their performances. Much of what he delivered this year had the sheen of high art, but if he made a single selection for his programme that didn’t have genuine (and in many cases compulsive) appeal to enough people to seriously tick over the box office, I’d like to know what it was.
Jonathan Holloway
In the new festival landscape in Perth, with a mightily enlarged, high-octane Fringe offering shows at close to cinema prices in a carnival precinct going toe-to-toe with the established festival, Holloway approach is exactly correct, and crucial to his gig’s success.      
I can only comment about the theatre programme (for a comprehensive overview of the whole occurrence, link here to my friend and mentor Steve Bevis’s take in The West) but it was a unqualified success, both in its component parts and taken as a whole.

The Threepenny Opera and The Secret River, the heavy hitters that book-ended the Festival both did massive business, and both lived up to their provenance and reputation. I had some qualms about Secret River, and it’s not a complete surprise that Threepenny Opera had its detractors, but as big deal events they delivered big time.
The gem of the programme was Watt, Barry McGovern's polished performance of Samuel Beckett's novel of the same name. It was simply immaculate, both on its own terms and in the way it showed how funny and lovely Beckett can be.
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, from the National Theatre of Scotland, and Mission Drift, from the progressive New York outfit The TEAM, were idiosyncratic and raw, but, if you got on their wavelength, exhilarating and wildly entertaining. My review of Mission Drift (link here) raised a few eyebrows, but, a couple of weeks later, I still say that if theatre is there to give each individual what they like, what they want and what they need, then it had everything I want theatre to have, and did everything I need theatre to do.
The National Theatre of Scotland have established themselves as a welcome Perth Festival staple with Black Watch, Beautiful Burnout and now Prudencia Hart; hopefully, after Mission Drift, we'll also see more of The TEAM.
A brace of excellent Australian shows for kids, Barking Gekko’s Duck, Death and the Tulip and Arena Theatre Company’s The House of Dreaming, were just as entertaining for grown-ups as their tackers.
I was a bit underwhelmed by La Cuccina d’ell Arte in its tent in Russell Square, but it was pleasant enough, and probably only suffered by comparison with Fringe shows in the same neighbourhood in similar venues at half the price.
Sadly, I didn't see A History of Everything, but judging by the legendary Ron Banks’s review (link here) it was right up there with the rest of the theatre programme. You'll find reviews of the all the rest here on Turnstiles.
Taken as a whole, there was a strong sense of the avant-garde, both historical and contemporary, about the theatre programme that dovetailed into other parts of the festival; a Philip Glass/ Robert Wilson core that spread from The Threepenny Opera to Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet and, to a greater or lesser extent, touched the majority of the theatre offering. There was a satisfying feeling of unity, and of Holloway's personal interest and commitment.
There’s no doubt that the Fringe has taken much more of the spotlight with its move to the Cultural Centre. Ironically, it stood in the middle of the festival season ­– certainly in a social and physical sense – and the Perth Festival, for all its strengths, revolved around it.
It’s partly because the Fringe can draw from the whole community interested in the performing arts, while many people (especially young people and arts practitioners) simply can't afford a serious investment in the Festival. It's also that this same cohort is more at home in the Fringe environment than the Perth Festival one. The relative "vibe" of the Orchard and Garden was a clear indication of that.
I’ve no doubt that Holloway has the artistic instincts and promoter’s savvy to work with the Fringe, and, indeed, exploit its propinquity for his festival’s benefit. That’s the great opportunity, and challenge, of his last two years at the helm of the Perth Festival.
If he can pull it off, we’ll be forever in his debt, especially if the confluence of the two events becomes a platform to deliver stimulating, high-quality popular arts to a community that is absolutely up for it every month of the year.

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