Article by Phil Brown | 28 August, 2023
Drowning glory: 60 years in the imagining, Salamander arrives with warning for us all
After a long gestation Brisbane Festival is giving birth to Salamander and it’s a show that promises to be the centrepiece of this year’s program, writes Phil Brown.
The normal gestation for a salamander is around two to four years. Apologies for sounding like a biology lesson but there is a point to this. Stay with me.
Salamanders are amphibians. They are not native to Australia but serve as the perfect symbol for a work about a world of climate change and rising sea levels.
The British writer J.G. Ballard, famous for his memoir Empire of the Sun (later a movie by Steven Spielberg) wrote a rather bleak book about all this. Published in 1962 The Drowned World is a dystopian imagining of an apocalyptic future. Set in 2145 when global warming renders our small blue dot largely uninhabitable, it’s prescient and sobering reading today.
Ballard was ahead of his time and acclaimed UK choreographer and director Maxine Doyle took his novel as the starting point for Salamander, a 95-minute production that will serve as the centrepiece of this year’s Brisbane Festival.
It opens Friday (Sept 1) and runs until September 24 in L Shed, Dock B at Northshore Brisbane which seems an appropriate location. It is an industrial wasteland but that’s cool and a bit arty and Brisbane Festival has embraced this riverside precinct.
Doyle has collaborated with British contemporary artist Es Devlin, a regular creative partner, on this must-see production that combines dance, music, theatre, lighting design and art.
It’s probably the most ambitious work commissioned by Brisbane Festival and that’s something artistic director Louise Bezzina is keen to accentuate when we meet on a late winter afternoon in the giant warehouse shed where the production will happen.
Inside the cavernous structure the Brisbane Festival team, which includes local theatre lighting guru Ben Hughes, are in full swing setting up two sets. The audience will transition from one to another during the show.
It is going to be “an adventure” according to Bezzina.
“This is what festivals do,” she says. “They take people on an adventure. That’s the magic. We’ve never made anything of this scale before. We have done all the production and are creating it from the ground up. We have around 100 people working on it.”
Bezzina met Maxine Doyle at the Perth Festival in early 2019 and that’s when the seeds were sown for Salamander. So, it has taken around the full extent of an actual salamander’s gestation period to get it to the stage, which seems appropriate.
It might have happened earlier had it not been for Covid but perhaps the longer gestation was a good thing, allowing the work to percolate within the minds of Doyle and Bezzina and the other creatives involved.
“I knew Maxine’s work and was attracted to it and I fell in love with her immersive dance-theatre work Sunset which I saw in Perth,” Bezzina says.
“At the time I was newly appointed to Brisbane Festival and I told her that and asked her if she would consider making something for us. One of the things I wanted was a local dance company involved.”
Expressions Dance Company had just morphed into Australasian Dance Collective (ADC) around that time with internationally renowned dancer and choreographer Amy Hollingsworth at the helm. ADC was soon conscripted as was Perth-based costume designer Bruce McKinven and composer and sound designer Rachael Dease who has created the soundtrack and who appears in the show singing her own songs.
Maxine Doyle says the music is “super atmospheric”.
But back to that salamander theme. I must admit to being a little disappointed that there were no actual salamanders in the show and Doyle says her young son was too, so we must be on the same page.
But the salamander is a potent motif.
“In The Drowned World Ballard poses a theory that the characters are transforming into some sort of amphibians,” Doyle says. “That intrigued me and I thought about salamanders as creatures that wobbled out of the sea and onto the land long before we were around.” She describes her work as “slightly nightmarish”.
“But Salamander is not all doom and gloom,” she insists. “But it is dark and unsettling and there are messages at the heart of it. It’s a response to the world as it is but the second part is a celebration of being human and what we should treasure, each other and community.”
To that end there is a vast dining table set up for that second half and the inspiration for that comes partly from the 2021 satirical feature film Don’t Look Up.
“There’s a scene at the end of the film where some of the main protagonists decide to sit and have a nice dinner together, essentially as the world ends,” Doyle says. “I found it really moving and it made me painfully think about who I would want to be with at the end.”
The set is an art installation designed by Devlin who has created sculptures for the piece. Her work has appeared at the Tate Modern and The Louvre and she has created work for Beyonce, U2 and The Royal Opera House at Covent Graden among others. She also worked on the 2012 London Olympics Closing ceremony.
From there to a shed at Northshore Brisbane, it’s quite a leap.
Salamander features her transparent labyrinthine structure for part one and a long kinetic table within the flooded sci-fi landscape of part two.
It’s hard to imagine quite how it will work but that’s part of the attraction. Louise Bezzina wants to surprise and intrigue festival goers. There will be an audience of 200 for each performance and there will be 24 shows during the festival.
“A smaller audience is better from an artistic point of view,” Bezzina says. “So of course, we have a lot of shows and we went to sell a lot of tickets and I can’t urge people enough to buy a ticket and come and see this. You will not see something like this in Brisbane again.”
As Salamander begins its run Friday the festival will be opening with the moving Jarrah (Mother earth), a cleansing and smoking ceremony followed by another opening weekend treat with the skies above the Brisbane River coming to life with Nieergoo – Spirit of the Whale.
The Little Red Company’s show There’s Something About Music will kick off in The South Bank Piazza and later in the night will be followed by some Strut & Fret naughtiness with The Party. At QPAC Bangarra Dance Theatre’s acclaimed Yuldea will be another festival treat. Then Saturday night the whole city lights up for Riverfire by Australian Retirement Trust. And so it begins.
Strap yourselves in, it’s going to be a very busy three weeks of Brisbane Festival. See you there.