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Adelaide during festival season feels like a world still struggling with its new reality

Jane Howard
·5-min read

The most impressive work at the Adelaide festivals of 2021 is an immersive, subversive site-specific performance: the Dance of Covid Safety.

An extension of 2020’s hygiene theatre, this dance highlights the inconsistencies of the often bewildering responses to Covid, not only in Adelaide but throughout Australia. At every venue, there is a different rule to be ignored.

Adelaide’s festivals were luckier than most. On the final Friday of last year’s season it was announced gatherings of more than 500 would be banned the following Monday. The air that weekend was eerie. The crowds were small and uncertain. Being out was a risk – but no one knew how big or small.

Related: Uncanny alley: grocery store made out of plastic trash debuts in Adelaide’s Rundle Mall

In a small tent, I watched the beautiful and heartbreaking Gobby. The actor and writer Jodie Irvine cried at the end. It was partly the show, and partly not. Unexpectedly, this would be her last performance. Melbourne international comedy festival had been cancelled. She would be flying home to England instead.

It was a tender and fitting moment to a festival season that felt so removed from the world – so lucky to have proceeded at all. It was an international artist; it was a party; it was sad and it was filled with love. It saw the world as an unstable place: an observation that was to be proven so true.

This time around, the eeriness is gone, but the city is quiet for festival time. I walk into venues with no line; up to bars to be served immediately. Places to sit are plentiful. Sold-out signs are rare.

And then, among the quiet, there are strange pockets of noise and revelry, as if 2020 never happened. On a Saturday night, I line up at RCC, a party venue in Victoria Square. Getting in takes only as long as it takes to scan my ticket. But once inside I am surrounded by a bevy of drunk 20-somethings, yelling over the music and spreading aerosols like we remember.

Signs abound, reading: “No dancing, good vibes only.” With a change of laws, dancing persists – but behind another fence and another Covid check-in.

I walk 250 metres down the road to Her Majesty’s Theatre for The Pulse. The theatre is quite literally sterile, cleaners spraying down surfaces even as the audience enters. Signs implore us to check in.

A video plays on a loop above the unstaffed bar showing people attending the theatre and buying drinks. But tonight the bars are closed, the foyers kept empty.

On stage, a mass of bodies. In the auditorium, the performativity of separation

With a cast of 30 acrobats, The Pulse could have only been made in a world in lockdown. It was created when the Adelaide company Gravity and Other Myths found their international appearances cancelled and their several touring companies together in Australia. It was formed in a place that forced us to question who we are and what we care about, with the blessings of being in Adelaide and the freedom it afforded.

And yet the wider festival is a world still struggling with its new reality: of hand sanitiser and masks and social distancing. On stage, a mass of bodies. In the auditorium, the performativity of separation.

These contradictions are rife throughout the festivals. Before a fringe performance, an email: “This show requires a mask.” Once there, I heard masks rarely mentioned and saw none.

Across town, rows and rows of plastic chairs have been neatly aligned. Every second one has a sticker reading “please leave space”. They are often ignored.

Venues are divided into smaller and smaller capacities, or spit you out and in again. Go in the wrong gate and you quickly find your show is not in this Gluttony but the other Gluttony, or it is in Gluttony but to get there you must go past the large exit sign and the much smaller entrance sign – as I find in my meandering path to see Borealis, where I must check into the one venue three separate times.

At Adelaide writers’ week, requests that we maintain social distancing feel as effective as the plea that audience members ask questions and not make statements.

Everywhere you go, Covid marshals gently ask those in the queues to stand 1.5 metres apart, and yet order seems to dissolve as you enter the venue.

Related: ‘It’s a funeral march’: French artist JR’s powerful eulogy for Australia's Murray-Darling

At some point on the opening weekend I realise that normally my festival season starts sometime in January. Scottish accents begin to float around the city as staff migrate down from the Edinburgh festivals. Old friends come into town from overseas, and we hug and laugh like no time at all has passed.

This year, the festivals didn’t start with foreign accents or old friends. It started with a text message: “Fringe Performance Cancellation – Karen from Finance, Feb 19th.” The border from Victoria was still closed.

Adelaide in 2020 was relatively normal compared with the rest of the world. But it still feels novel to be back in crowds. They are thinner than usual: there are more empty seats; you can buy more tickets at the last minute. Yes, social distancing is ignored – but it is still easier to find space, to walk down Rundle Street, to talk, to order a beer than I can ever remember.

This is a city that, despite everything going our way, is tired. To be among the first in the world to have arts festivals back again is some kind of magic. But it is a magic, perhaps, that so many are not yet ready for. Or they are. But quietly, and cautiously, and not all at once.