I’ve been to all of Australia’s major Arts Festivals this year, and Melbourne’s compares badly. Does Melbourne need an international arts festival in the 21st century? If we do, what is its purpose within the cultural life of our city? And are we willing to fund the festival so it is as lustrous as its interstate siblings? A few dinner party conversations in those questions. Be good to have a free discussion on the subject, but please keep it respectful.
Last week, the Melbourne Festival backed down on its plan to move from October to February-March in the face of stiff opposition. Had the calendar change succeeded, it would have put the event in the same quarter as most of Australia’s major arts festivals: the Sydney Festival in January, the Perth International Arts Festival in February and the Adelaide Festival in March. I travelled to all three this year to take a comparative look at where our festival sits in the big picture, and came away with a strong sense that the Melbourne Festival is in crisis.
The reasons are complex. Cultural and geographical disadvantage can prove a boon to an arts festival, boosting its participation, and providing a definitive purpose within the cultural landscape of its host city. The festivals with the highest reputations – Adelaide and Perth – compensate for what these capitals lack in access to the best and boldest international performance throughout the year.
Perth might be remote and small and, as a Melbourne friend who has moved there said, “culturally devoid” most of the time. Yet it has its foot firmly on the accelerator in our two-speed economy and seems determined to convert some fraction of its economic wealth into cultural capital.
The Perth Festival was clustered together with a film festival, writer’s festival and for the first time a vibrant fringe fest (they’ve even bought their own spiegeltent). Under new artistic director Jonathan Holloway, it benefitted from inspired programming that catered to an audience starved for big-time international fare of any stripe or colour, as well as a purpose-built gathering place within the city’s compact cultural precinct.
Buoyed by Perth’s Mediterranean climate, the Festival started, quite literally, on a high: the opening free event Place des Anges saw French aerialists drench the city in a sea of feathers. Momentum only built from there, with a theatre and opera program of enviable prestige and popular appeal. Among the highlights: the legendary theatre director Peter Brook with his distilled chamber version of The Magic Flute; the all-male British Shakespeare company Propeller performing The Winter’s Tale and Henry V; Matthew Lutton directing Strauss’s Elektra, in a brilliant expressionist production that featured the deranging power of Danish soprano Eva Johannson, and Charlie Chaplin’s grandson James Thiérrée, one of the world’s greatest clowns, in the incomparably charming Raoul.
Thiérrée appeared in Adelaide too, and like Perth’s, Adelaide’s Festival flourishes on a concentration of creative energy – the world music and dance festival WOMAD, writer’s week, an extensive fringe program, and other umbrella events. It also boasted the most elaborate and successful festival hub in the country. Dubbed ‘Barrio’, a carnivalesque warren of bars and stages was built outside the Festival Centre, transforming a staid public space into a quirk-filled delight. The venue had crowds queuing for hours every night to get in.
Programming-wise, Adelaide tends to attract a flagship production that any arts lover in the country would cross state borders to see. The great French actress Isabelle Huppert as Blanche in Streetcar was the hottest ticket around, and if Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski’s brazen and irreverent conception infuriated traditionalists, Huppert’s performance will never be forgotten. Those with opposite tastes could find as strong a traditional production of Pinter as you could get – The Caretaker starring Jonathan Pryce.
Melbourne does not have the disadvantages of smaller cities like Adelaide or Perth, and that puts the Festival under intense pressure to define its role. We have a thriving arts scene that can attract a share of international performance throughout the year, and the Festival’s original rationale has been radically diminished.
In particular, the Arts Centre has broadened its ambitions to host lustrous productions from around the world. In recent years it has programmed everything from Sir Ian McKellen in Trevor Nunn’s King Lear to the progressive Nederlans Dans Theater, and in 2012 Melbourne audiences can look forward to the popular hit from London, the National Theatre’s War Horse, as well as Robert Lepage’s nine-hour globalised epic Lipsynch. Even a decade ago, both shows would have been classic Festival fare.
Worse still, from the Festival’s point of view, the Arts Centre uses large popular works to subsidise niche, experimental ones – its recent suite of contemporary, avant-garde Asian performance leaps to mind.
The question has to be posed: do we need a Melbourne Festival at all? What role if any is the Melbourne Festival playing in the cultural and artistic life of our city that isn’t already being filled throughout the year, or couldn’t be filled just as effectively through existing networks and institutions outside the Festival?
Looking to the Sydney Festival – Australia’s largest – provides an interesting counterpoint. There’s no question Sydney’s mainstage theatre scene is better served than Melbourne’s, its access to international performing arts as robust, and its Opera House at least as ambitious and iconic an institution as Melbourne’s Arts Centre.
Still, its Festival program had more going for it than Melbourne’s (including a knockout production of Tis Pity She’s A Whore by British director Declan Donnellan, now touted as Cate Blanchett’s successor at the STC) and the event yielded a greater sense of energy and participation.
Part of the cause is that, under Premier Barry O’Farrell, the NSW government has invested more heavily in the Sydney Festival as part of a push to trump Melbourne in artistic and cultural major events. This year, it stumped up an extra $600,000 to extend the Festival opening to Parramatta in the city’s west.
The figures speak for themselves: the Sydney Festival, overall budget $19.4m, programming budget $10.4m; Perth Festival, $15.7m, programming $9.7m; Adelaide $14m, $8m (excluding WOMAD); and Melbourne Festival 10.5m, with a programming budget of only $5.3m. Melbourne is being radically shortchanged. Given the importance of arts and culture to our city’s image of itself, a major review of the Festival’s funding arrangements needs to be undertaken.
Nor would it hurt if our Premier and arts minister bothered to turn up and engage with the Festival. Ted Baillieu attended only one show last year, and it’s emblematic of the low regard in which his government holds the event.
Not that you can entirely blame him. In terms of programming and a festival hub, the Melbourne Festival remains lacklustre in comparison to its interstate counterparts. We should put up or shut up; fund and organise the Festival properly, or dismantle it and give the money to other institutions to bring quality local and international fare to audiences year round.
Do we need an arts festival in a 21st century Melbourne with an already packed artistic and cultural calendar? It may seem a harsh question, but it’s one our arts scene, and perhaps the Festival itself, will be stronger for asking.
[A version of this essay appeared in The Sunday Age, 25/3/12.]