IAIN GRANDAGE'S PERTH
Perth Festival starts this week. VICTORIA LAURIE talks to its artistic director about his reign.
Images: Iain Grandage, Hecate, and The Invisible Opera
When Iain Grandage took on the artistic director role at Perth Festival in 2020, there was a huge buzz around his four-year appointment. After all, he was the first composer in the festival’s 65-year history to be offered the job, and the first raised and educated in Perth.
There was also reassuring history – Grandage had already worked with all six festival directors before him as a musician, composer, and collaborator. That work won him seven Helpmann Awards for his compositions for theatre, including Neil Armfield’s stage adaptation of the Tim Winton novel Cloudstreet, and for operas like The Rabbits with Kate Miller-Heidke.
Given free rein to shape his own festivals, Grandage was destined to draw on every bit of local knowledge. He did this so imaginatively that his first festival in 2020 confirmed him – in my mind at least – as one of Australia’s most gifted impresarios.
It opened with the world premiere of Yirra Yaakin’s play Hecate, adapted from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and performed entirely in Nyoongar language. The 2020 festival closed with Highway to Hell, a crowd-pleasing tribute to Fremantle-born band AC/DC, with bands belting out songs on a convoy of flatbed trucks that drove down Canning Highway past the grave site of AC/DC leader Bon Scott.
And then, within hours of the 2020 festival ending, Australia’s first victim of Covid died in a Perth hospital. Grandage’s next festival was forced to look inward as WA’s borders were sealed. He turned adversity into advantage – 2021 was a homegrown affair with four world premiere shows, Black Brass, Children of the Sea, Galup, and Slow Burn, Together, created by locked-in local artists and inspired by Grandage’s warm embrace of Nyoongar Indigenous culture.
He argues that, despite the hardship of Covid, “everybody got to slow down, and it chimed profoundly with what Nyoongar custodians were asking. Suddenly you notice things as you’re walking around your neighbourhood, your state, the places close to home.
“Our psychological damage from Covid is far, far less than anywhere else in the world,” he observes. “There was trauma for people who couldn’t get to loved ones, but for the vast majority of people, we got to love this place more deeply. We flipped from a celebration of bringing an international act to this place into celebrating work of international quality that comes from this place.”
Post-Covid, Grandage placed less emphasis on celebration of place “because it can quickly turn into parochialism and deny the successes of elsewhere.” He describes this ambition as “promoting a sense of shared humanity, the joy of getting back together again.”
His final festival – his fifth, after accepting an invitation to extend his standard four-year term – starts this weekend. Among its inbound offerings is UK-based Akram Khan Company’s Jungle Book Reimagined. Grandage says his “five-year conversation” with Khan began with one idea that was canceled by Covid, but left room for the Rudyard Kipling classic that Khan has radically reinterpreted through the eyes of today's children.
Other offerings are from Townsville’s Dancenorth, which will present Wayfinder, on the theme of navigation by the sun and stars. From the Gold Coast comes Stunt Double, a zany take on a 1970s “Aussie action flick” performed by The Farm Collective.
Closer to home, Kimberley-based Marrugeku performs Mutiara, a new show about Broome’s pearling industry and the close bond between Malay and First Nations peoples.
Grandage characteristically beams from ear to ear as he lists each festival event. “Arts is the good news bit of life,” he says, still smiling. “It’s our job to reach as many people as possible to affirm a sense of belonging. If you feel like you belong then you are more compassionate towards everybody around you. I increasingly dislike the requirement to have a polemic approach, I prefer ‘and/and’, not ‘and/or’.”
If he has to nominate a 2024 event that encapsulates what he’s striven to do in his Perth fiestas, what would it be? “It’s the closing event,” he says without hesitating. The Invisible Opera, by Australian artist Sophia Brous, performance makers Lara Thoms and Samara Hersch, and New York choreographer Faye Driscoll, involves an audience with headphones at one of Perth’s popular seaside locations.
“You’re sitting outside at Scarborough Beach and on your right is the built environment of the Rendezvous Hotel,” explains Grandage. “To the left is the sun sinking into the ocean, asking us to ponder our joyful existence in this place. In front are people from all walks of life, you’re being sung to by an all-seeing disembodied voice in your headphones, describing the interactions of human beings, one of whom might be you. It’s a throng of great public activity in a beautiful place.
“At the end of five years,” he continues, “I feel filled up with the privilege of being exposed to so many professional artists and learning about how they make their art – and that includes writers, visual artists, playwrights, choreographers.”
The end will mean a new period of intense energy for Grandage as he returns to his metier: composing music. He’s already started work on the score for Runt, the film adaptation of West Australian writer Craig Silvey’s novel.
“When I came into this job I had this moment where I thought ‘I’ll never write a piece of music again’,” he says. “But I did, and I’m going into it hard at the end!”
Perth Festival – 9 February-3 March 2024. Full program at perthfestival.com.au/whats-on/