Meeting of cultures ... the stage adaptation of The Secret River. Photo: Heidrun Lohr
ONE OF the hottest tickets at the Sydney Festival, which has just completed its first week, is the theatre piece The Blind Date Project. At first appearance it is a simple two-hander about a young woman, Anna, who arranges to meet a potential suitor, chosen from an online dating site.
But the hour-long show's tension is heightened by the fact it is unscripted and its creator, Bojana Novakovic, who plays Anna, doesn't know who her leading man, or woman, will be each night. Attending an arts festival event can be like agreeing to a blind date. The prospect can excite, unnerve and is equally ripe for disaster or delight. During a performance of Blind Date seen by this reporter - no two evenings are the same - Anna's friend phoned early in the night to find out if she ''needed rescuing''. No, she told her. It's all good.
Sydney's date with the incoming festival director, Lieven Bertels, got off to a rockier start: dance without much dramatic movement (Sacre - The Rite of Spring); a camp solo marathon beneath a crowd-repelling sun (Fun Run); good puppets gone bad (Murder); and no Festival First Night to anchor proceedings. But one week on, few would be hoping a friend comes to the rescue just yet.
The Daptone Super Soul Revue, the festival's free opening night concert, drew a good-sized and enthusiastic crowd to The Domain. Song Dong's monumental installation of everyday objects collected by his mother over half a century moved or confused onlookers at Carriageworks. And thousands were charmed by The Arrival, Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman's giant rubber duck in Darling Harbour.
Still, rumblings about a modest opening weekend persisted into Tuesday. On a night of suffocating temperatures, the Kuwaiti writer/director Sulayman al-Bassam's In the Eruptive Mode had many ticket-holders hoping their rescue call would come, but broader panic was averted thanks to strong openings for The Blind Date Project and Cantina, Spiegeltent's sold-out adult circus.
On Wednesday, Sydney cooled and Bertels delivered his own blast of box office heat at the Theatre Royal opening of Heiner Goebbels's' Eraritjaritjaka.
Unlike the smaller Blind Date Project, this was a true ''festival show'', incessantly European, grand in ambition, baffling and wonderful beyond words.
Bertels, a Belgian, brought another European marvel to the Sydney Town Hall on Friday with the highly anticipated opera Semele Walk. The opening-nighters loved it, and it will likely remain the show of the festival when the final curtain falls in two weeks.
It was one of 13 performances that opened that night, which also marked the first night of the buzz-generating About an Hour program, a mini festival within a festival, at Carriageworks.
The first week closed with a well-received Summer Sounds free concert in The Domain, as well as Neil Armfield's Sydney Theatre Company production of The Secret River.
After a week when Baroque grandeur and theatrical sleight of hand from Europe dominated the good notices, this was an Australian story told simply and told well. It was greeted with an emotional outpouring and standing ovation at night's end.
The festival's executive director, Chris Tooher, said he was ''thrilled'' with the festival so far.
Box office figures will not be released until the festival concludes.
Until then, Bertels will ask audiences to embrace a program that includes another opening night in Parramatta, as well as an uninterrupted two hours and 30 minutes of Chinese opera. Twice. The phone, and its rescue call, remain close at hand.