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You would be crazy to miss Adelaide Festival’s Mad March

By Kathy Marks

Inside Adelaide’s largest proscenium arch theatre, Shakespeare’s three Roman tragedies are being staged back to back – in Dutch.

In the city’s main pedestrian mall, 12-foot-high divas in sumptuous frocks are performing a street ballet.

In the Botanic Park, Rufus Wainwright is crooning beneath ancient fig trees, while just to the south the throb of V8 engines and scent of diesel fuel fill the air.

It’s Mad March, when four of Adelaide’s biggest festivals coincide and an eclectic crowd of culture vultures, music fans and rev-heads converges on the South Australian capital, creating a hectic, non-stop party atmosphere.

Greeting them is Adelaide’s best weather, consisting of long, warm, sunny days and balmy evenings – perfect conditions for a stroll through the Garden of Unearthly Delights in Rundle Park, where much of the Adelaide Fringe unfolds in an array of marquees including the century-old travelling Famous Spiegeltent.

The temperatures are ideal, too, for wandering along the banks of the River Torrens to the waterside Adelaide Festival Centre, one of the principal venues for the Adelaide Festival, or kicking back on a picnic blanket, chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc in hand, at the four-day WOMADelaide world music and dance extravaganza in Botanic Park.

And while it’s unlikely that even torrential rain could dampen the spirits of the petrol-heads flocking to Clipsal 500, Australia’s largest motor sport event, nothing quite beats sitting in the stands with the sun on your face, watching the country’s best racing drivers thunder past in a cloud of dust.

It’s little wonder that Adelaide, once known as the City of Churches, now calls itself the Festival City. For while Australia’s capitals, including Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, all have their annual arts jamborees, none can equal the buzz of Mad March in this picturesque southern metropolis.

Writers’ Week and WOMADelaide take centre stage for Mad March

In March, Australian and international tourists descend, locals are in town, bars and restaurants jump with life and the city seems never to sleep. Ringed by lush parklands and sandwiched between beaches and vineyards, Adelaide is fun to visit all the year round. But whereas this unassuming city usually wears its charms lightly; it positively flaunts them in March.

The city was a very different place in 1960, with just one motel and pubs which closed at 6pm, when the grand-daddy of the festival scene, the Adelaide Festival of Arts, was launched. Staged every two years until 2012 – and incorporating Adelaide Writers’ Week, one of the world’s foremost literary gatherings – it is now held annually.

Also dating from 1960, the Adelaide Fringe has mushroomed into a month-long affair second only in size to Edinburgh and taking over the entire city. The 2015 Fringe comprised more than 900 events held in theatres, art galleries, cafes, pubs, hotels and town halls as well as pop-up sites in warehouses, laneways and empty buildings.

WOMADelaide, meanwhile, spans the Adelaide Cup Day long weekend – yes, South Australia’s premier horse race also takes place in March, on the second Monday of the month, a public holiday in the state. Founded in 1992 as part of the Adelaide Festival, WOMADelaide these days features no fewer than seven stages.

Over the years, those three festivals have drawn an impressive array of big names. Britain’s Peter Gabriel, Senegal’s Baaba Maal, South Africa’s Abdullah Ibrahim and Jamaican Jimmy Cliff are among the hundreds of artists who have entertained laid-back crowds of all ages at Botanic Park – WOMADelaide is always popular with families.

The Adelaide Festival, which has gained a reputation for edgy, innovative work, has imported the likes of French actor Isabelle Huppert, British thespian Jonathan Pryce and the Royal Ballet’s Sylvie Guillem, as well as the London Sinfonietta, China’s Jin Xing Dance Theatre and the US’s Kronos Quartet.

From drag queens to burlesque

Mad March, though, caters for all tastes. At one Fringe a few years ago, in a room above a pub, I laughed myself sore at a gaggle of German comedians lampooning their countrymen, then made my way over to the Garden of Unearthly Delights, to be regaled in turn by the sultry British-born drag artist Le Gateau Chocolat, followed by the Wau Wau Sisters, a bawdy American burlesque duo.

Short of cash? No problem: there are plenty of free events, especially during Fringe, when the streets are full of jugglers, acrobats and other performers.

At Writers’ Week, held in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens, near the Festival Centre, most talks and panel sessions are unticketed. Guests in recent years have included American novelists Paul Auster and Edward St Aubyn, the Scottish historian William Dalrymple, Britain’s Alan Hollinghurst and Jeanette Winterson, and ethologist Richard Dawkins.

There’s a quite different, distinctly boisterous crowd at Clipsal 500, on the city’s eastern edge, where the circuit encompasses parkland and downtown city streets.

A round of the V8 Supercar Championship Series, the four-day event was founded in 1999 after Melbourne lured away (some say stole) the Australian Grand Prix.

Adelaide got its revenge when the legendary Formula One TV commentator Murray Walker dubbed Clipsal “the best touring car event in the world”.

But it’s not just the spectacle and thrill of the racing that attracts the 285,000 people who attended in 2015.

Nightly concerts roving peformers

There is also a nightly concert – past performers include INXS, Keith Urban and Motley Crue – and a glamorous Ladies Day luncheon, where you can spot V8 Supercar drivers as well as local celebrities. Then there are the beachwear parades, aerial fighter jet displays, FMX and BMX stunt shows, and – for the children – face painting, amusement rides and roving performers.

These socially diverse crowds – some in evening suits, some in shorts and flip-flops – throng Adelaide’s parks and squares during Mad March, and mingle in the restaurants and cafes.

In this compact city, the theatres, art galleries, Fringe bars and Writers’ Week marquees, along with the Clipsal track, are all within walking distance of each other, which heightens the convivial ambiance.

Clichéed as it might sound, during this action-packed month nearly everyone walks around with a smile on their face.

Don’t get the idea though that March is the beginning and end of Adelaide’s festival season. For one thing, the Adelaide Festival and Fringe begin in February.

And, as well as the big four, the city has its Cabaret Festival, SALA (South Australia Living Artists) Festival, Feast Festival of gay and lesbian culture and International Guitar Festival. May 2016 will see the city host the inaugural Tasting Australia festival.

Moreover, with a cluster of events taking place in the southern hemisphere spring – Adelaide’s Fashion Festival, Adelaide Film Festival, Festival of Ideas and OzAsia Festival – Insane October is shaping up as a rival to Mad March.

Then November brings the country’s premier equestrian competition, the Australian International 3-day Event, along with the new Tarnanthi Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art.

March, though, remains the key focus of the arts – and motor sport – calendar. So whether your passion is high-octane or high culture, head to a city regularly ranked among the world’s top ten most liveable and experience “Radelaide”, as the locals call it, at the craziest time of year.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

South Australia

Adelaide Festival

Adelaide Fringe

WOMADelaide

Clipsal 500

GETTING THERE

International carriers fly direct into Adelaide, including Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific and Malaysian Airlines. Qatar Airways will begin daily flights into Adelaide from May 2016. Virgin Australia and Qantas fly to Adelaide from all major Australian cities (flights from Sydney and Melbourne are under two hours).
Major hire car companies are at Adelaide Airport.