In the two years since the debate about the size of the Adelaide fringe exploded, the noise may have settled but the debris has not. Year on year, the festival talks about its increased size but each year there is a noticeable lack of companies working in innovative spaces in theatre and dance, and an increase in the comedians who are performing at Perth fringe and the Melbourne International Comedy festival but skipping Adelaide in between.
And with the Royal Croquet Club threatening to withdraw from the 2018 festival if they weren’t granted a five-year licence from the Adelaide city council, many have been asking who owns the power in such a sprawling festival, and how these venues – and the money behind them – will shape the fringe in future.
Still, when there are more than 1,200 shows hitting the city over five weeks, there are more than enough artistic gems to be discovered. These are my top five Adelaide fringe festival shows so far.
ABC iView’s screening of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s award-winning TV series, Fleabag, coincides with the original stage show of the same name touring Australia with Maddie Rice in the title role. This story of a young angry woman, reeling with grief and trying desperately to feel herself and hold herself together – largely through sexual encounters – comes from a dark core but the work itself is bitingly funny and heartbreakingly real.
Rice as Fleabag is a beautifully affable performer. Sitting on a chair in the middle of an empty stage, augmented only by lighting changes and limited sound effects – including the voices of some scene partners – Rice is captivating. Fleabag shows us all the worst parts of herself and the way young women judge themselves as they move through the world, yet you cannot help but love her. Waller-Bridge’s script is a masterclass in writing for a solo performer: a stunning distillation of life.
Fleabag plays at The Box at the Garden of Unearthly Delights until 18 March, and then at Malthouse theatre for the Melbourne International Comedy festival, 28 March – 22 April.
The Institute of Invisible Things
The Adelaide central markets are a staple of the city centre. They bustle and move with produce hawkers and shoppers, the scent of fresh flowers mingling with the smell of fresh bread. Locals learn the flow of the crowds, how to lean into the steady stream of people to carry them to their favourite fruit shop.
As you wait to enter The Institute of Invisible Things, held inside the Gallery Next Door, a pop-up venue inside the market, you sit and watch this familiar movement and listen to the familiar noise. Then, quietly, you are asked to go through a door into a space that feels impossibly quiet and removed. The room, inhabited by artists Emma Beech and Sarah John, is dimly lit, quiet and gentle. You’re guided alone through four spaces of stories, asking you to contemplate your place in the impossibly empty universe.
The artists play with words and images: a book to read alone; the outline of a dead leaf playing in light over a steaming bowl of tea; an almost whispered conversation about the constellation that makes your family yours.
In the bustle of the markets in the bustle of the festival season, Beech and John have created a beauty of a place to sit and breathe. To remember who you are; to remember you are here.
Glittery Clittery: A Consensual Party
It seems the Fringe Wives Club – Australian festival circuit staples Tessa Waters, Rowena Hutson and Victoria Falconer-Pritchard – have nailed the recipe for your standard fringe show: singing, dancing, comedy, audience interaction, several kilograms of sparkles, some political commentary and a rebuttal or two to a heckler. If they’ve left out the circus, they’ve replaced it with a human-sized replica of a vagina, complete with anatomy lesson – so all is forgiven.
No one, it feels, is having a better time on stage this fringe festival than these women. The show is a fiercely political claiming of space – both as female artists on stage but also as women out in the world. It is, like most feminist conversations, depressing in the ways it makes you consider the truth of power and inequality, yet elating in the way these conversations create joy through empowerment. It’s a celebration of consent, of friendship and of fringe.
We Are Ian
When We Are Ian opens, and large projected words tell us we will dance, we feel a bit sceptical. Slowly we get up, encouraged by these three wordless young women in white coveralls as we tentatively follow along, feeling silly and awkward, relieved when we sit down.
By the end of the show, we are a messy, sweaty, dancing party.
We Are Ian is documentary performance – a light bulb stands in for Ian as we hear his stories on DJing in the Manchester club scene in the 1980s. The voice leads the artists on a wild journey, balls of energy across the stage and into the audience: panting and hugging and loving.
As well as being a celebration of the Manchester club scene, We Are Ian expands to comment on the need for cultural spaces and community; the way that these spaces – and, yes, the drugs that were consumed in them – created a place where young men who felt out of step with the world could embrace happiness. Its loss is traced through news footage, a contemporary history of conservative politics: from Thatcher to May; but also Hanson, Turnbull and Trump.
Strange works of contemporary performance aren’t going to create a community like the world Ian knew. But they serve to remind us that art can create a family. An intense love of people you meet for only a moment and then leave as you walk off into the night.
When I was a kid, the 3m diving platform at the Adelaide aquatic centre felt impossibly high. I would stand on the edge, looking down at the water, trying to build up the energy to leap. For Wet Sounds, I float and look up at the diving platform, taken over by composer Joel Cahan, as he sits at his computer to operate the music score that takes place over and under the water.
The company, perhaps, has misjudged the capacity of the pool – this is the first performance I’ve been to where I’ve been kicked square in the eye. But when you find your space and place in the water it can be incredible: I alternate between gently floating, finding places where the music melds at a point I feel it in my body, and diving as deep as I can, circling a speaker dropped low in the pool, observing this strange underworld of scuba diving performers; the legs that kick on the surface and the few other audience members who have also taken the deep plunge. Wet Sounds is not so much that you are part of the performance, but the performance is part of you: music and water becoming one in this strange place disconnected from the rest of the world.
Adelaide fringe runs until 18 March