Miss Adelaide, miss out

New artistic director of Australia’s Adelaide Festival David Sefton
New artistic director of Australia’s Adelaide Festival David Sefton

After last year’s Cultural Olympiad and the 12 days of Christmas, you might not be feeling so festive at this dark, damp time of year. But the sun is shining down under, and there is an extra special reason for planning the trip of a lifetime to the Adelaide Festival.

That venerable jamboree, biennial since 1960, goes annual for the first time this March under the artistic directorship of David Sefton, the Scouser who founded Meltdown on the South Bank in 1993 and who, like the rest of us, can hardly keep up with the dizzying bill of cultural fare down by the river where he worked, first in marketing for 18 months then as deputy director to Graham Sheffield.

“It’s like an enormous car boot sale when I go down there now,” he says, sipping coffee on the top floor in Soho House while steering me through the highs, lows and politics of a life in music, festivals and, most recently, Los Angeles, where he ran the renowned performing arts programme at the University of California’s LA campus.

While at UCLA, he created an international festival within the programme, attracting such names as Pina Bausch, Robert Wilson, the RSC, Ian McKellen, Laurie Anderson, Brian Wilson (of the Beach Boys), Edward Albee and Romeo Castellucci. So he is very ‘Barbican’, well connected to the establishment avant-garde, with a special interest in experimental and electronic music.

And there is a special UK connection to his first Adelaide programme, which includes the National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors (now starring Owain Arthur), the National Theatre of Scotland’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (by David Greig) and, most intriguingly, perhaps, the world premiere of Bryony Lavery’s Thursday.

Thursday is a co-production between our own English Touring Theatre and Adelaide’s Brink Productions, taking reference from the story of the Adelaide woman, Gill Hicks, who lost her legs in the July 2005 London bombings.

Owain Arthur (Francis Henshall) in One Man, Two Guvnors. Photo: Tristram Kenton

“It’s a good example, I hope,” says Sefton, who is sharp and lively, “of mixing the international and local aspirations of this festival. There’s no fixed percentage of Australian work, but I guess it’s about 25% in this programme. This is an international festival in a small city. The locals are very proud of it, and rightly so.”

But when I first (and last) went, 30 years ago, to the festival masterminded by Jim Sharman, which featured the first performance beyond Europe (and before London) of Pina Bausch and the world premiere of David Hare’s A Map of the World, I reckoned there was a fair amount of cultural cringe, and the New World was still a bit in thrall to the old.

“Not any more,” reckons Sefton. “There’s a great documentary of the second festival in 1962 showing you how ‘colonial’ it was back then, with the Governor General coming along to open it, the National Anthem sung, the flag flying. But now there’s a real confidence about Australian identity, and I can hardly declare who I am in the back of a taxi in case the driver, as he inevitably will, starts on about the great Adelaide Festival. If he asks what I do, I say I’m an accountant.”

And on the accountancy front, they are in the money. “There’s no recession to speak of in Australia,” he explains. “It was part of an election commitment of the South Australia government that they would double the money so that the festival could go annual. Over the years, the fringe had evolved, and then in the 1980s Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD came to town (WOMADelaide this year features Hugh Masekela, Jimmy Cliff, the Soweto Gospel Choir and Antibalas, the Afrobeat orchestra) – both of these were annual.

“So the government realised they could sell festival tickets on an annual basis. It’s one of the few good news arts stories in the world – the idea that an arts budget is not just increased, but doubled. There are great concentrations of the arts in Australia, though Melbourne and obviously Sydney have much more going on all year round. They wanted an injection of energy in Adelaide. I’ve done a bit of energising in the past, and they liked what I could bring to the table.”

Adelaide will see Australian premieres of things we know well – Laurie Anderson with the Kronos Quartet, Sylvie Guillem’s 6,000 Miles Away, TR Warszawa’s Nosferatu and Wim Vandekeybus’ What the Body Does Not Remember. All of this work is exciting and innovative. But it is also part of the festival circuit. What exactly, I wonder, does Sefton think a particular festival now represents, what is a festival for?

“Well, it’s partly cultural information. Partly, coming together, hands across the sea. Partly political. But mostly, I feel a festival gives people an opportunity to see work they didn’t know they wanted to see. They know they want to see One Man, Two Guvnors and Sylvie. But there’s an awful lot more in there they don’t know about – yet.

“But if you stood it alone, they wouldn’t be interested. You bring it to a festival, there’s an intention behind it. And there are 310 performances in 17 days. That’s an amazing opportunity for an audience. I don’t do themes (my friend Jonathan Mills in Edinburgh is very keen on themes). In music, for instance, I like to have one sound idea and then cluster a whole lot around it, so we can say what’s going on in electronic music, say, or in the brass band.”

Does that mean there is still room for creating controversy, or even causing offence? “There’s always a tightrope quality to it, especially at so well-established a festival as Adelaide. A lot of the audience have been around for 50 years, and there are always ex-directors in town, like Anthony Steel, and you do want to make sure you’re not setting out to upset them.”

Oh, why? “You want to be evolving, not revolting. You want to keep one eye on the audience – who are very adventurous, anyway. All the bad boys of American and European theatre – Castellucci, Rodrigo Garcia [before he directed The Sopranos on television], Jan Fabre – have been to Australia, and usually thanks to the festival.”

My memories of the festival are nothing but happy. I stayed in a hotel overlooking the Adelaide Oval (the beautiful cricket ground is completely trashed at the moment, undergoing a controversial development as a home to Australian Rules football as well as the cricket), met Patrick White and his promising young director, Neil Armfield (currently responsible for The Judas Kiss in London), and loved every minute of the discussions, dance programme and theatre.

For Adelaide has something Edinburgh does not have – warmth, sunshine, great wines and good, honest food wherever you go. It is the perfect location for an arts festival. And the Adelaide Festival Centre in Elder Park – where I had the pleasure of interviewing Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (who was singing The Makropoulos Affair), George Melly, former NT touring manager Roger Chapman (then working at the Youth Performing Arts Centre) and the great Ekkehard Schall, Brecht’s son-in-law, among others, in the lunchtime open air sessions – now has three great performance spaces.

In addition, Sefton has access to the “slightly run-down” Her Majesty’s, also administered by the Festival Centre, and the Queen’s, a 19th-century theatre now gutted, like a warehouse, where he is presenting a musical theatre piece, Murder, based on Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads, and a historic “global exclusive”, Severed Heads, generally cited as a major influence in electronic music and reforming especially, for the last time ever.

Sefton has pretty much planned the 2014 festival already, and is looking at 2015 (he has signed a three-year contract) with an optimistic squint. “You have to be that advanced, really, because, if a show’s got a set, it’s going to take six weeks getting to Australia, so you’re asking people to take three months out of their lives.”

I ask him if there really is a great difference between Britain and Oz apart from the distance. “There’s a short story by Ray Bradbury about time travel,” he says, unexpectedly. “In it, someone steps off the path and squashes a butterfly. When he comes back, everything’s changed a little bit. For me, Australia is Great Britain with the butterfly.”

The Adelaide Festival is on from March 1-17. For details, visit www.adelaidefestival.com.au