Forget 'Brisvegas' - the place hums, says Louise Schwartzkoff
It is a well-established tradition: the weekend away for a dose of culture. It usually involves an interstate flight, theatre, fancy restaurants, a small bar or two. There might be time for a mosey around a museum.
There are plenty of places to go in Australia for an arty-farty fix, but Brisbane historically has not been one of them. Yet here I am, sipping a glass of pinot noir at a restaurant in Brisbane's South Bank, ready for a night of music and fishnet stockings at The Rocky Horror Show.
Any lingering stereotypes about "Brisvegas" are well and truly past their use-by date. For years, the Queensland Performing Arts Centre has been enticing huge crowds with performances of the highest calibre. When Russia's Bolshoi Ballet visited Australia last year for the first time in two decades, the company performed exclusively at QPAC for a sold-out season. The Queensland Gallery of Modern Art is the largest contemporary art gallery in the country, centrepiece of a bustling arts precinct along the southern bank of the Brisbane River.
A thriving cultural scene is a boon for local restaurants and hotels. The Pullman Brisbane King George Square is offering a Rocky Horror accommodation package. On the bed in my spacious room I find a basket of treats, including a copy of the movie, starring Tim Curry. There is also a lab coat and purple feather boa, which I resist wearing to the performance.
Others are less restrained. Opening night at QPAC brings out an audience almost as extravagantly costumed as the cast. There are blokes in stilettos and women in magnificent wigs. One curvaceous young woman is wearing a breathtakingly tight maid's uniform, channelling the enigmatic domestic, Magenta.
A particularly brave fellow is wearing almost nothing at all as Rocky, the show's eye candy and creation of the mad scientist and "sweet transvestite", Doctor Frank-N-Furter.
With an audience this enthusiastic, some unscripted crowd participation is inevitable. Craig McLachlan as Frank-N-Furter plays up to the audience, responding to the interruptions and interjections with quips and winks. His Frank-N-Furter is more camp than scary or sexy, which robs the role of some of its intensity, but he is clearly having a ball. Christie Whelan-Browne is terrific in the role of good-girl-turned-sexpot Janet Weiss.
There is entertainment of a quieter kind on offer down the road at the Gallery of Modern Art. Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang has twice before attempted to work with GOMA. The first time, he planned an explosion of three hydrogen balloons in the sky above the Brisbane River. It ended prematurely and noisily in an explosion at the warehouse storing the gunpowder. He tried again three years later, proposing to send 99 flaming boats down the river. The entire flotilla sank.
It is third time lucky with Falling Back to Earth. No flames or gunpowder involved this time, but the show's impact is still explosive. My breath catches in my throat as I enter the white-walled room housing the colossal installation, Head On.
A pack of 99 mangy wolves - life-sized sculptures of resin and hide - races across the gallery floor. Frozen in a moment, the pack leaps, hurls itself through air, then slams into a glass wall and thuds to the ground.
There's a grim allegory about human habits in there somewhere, but it is also a magnificent spectacle. Gallery-goers wander among the wolves. A girl of about seven squats on the floor, staring intently into one furry face. Couples take pictures of each other beneath the animals suspended from the ceiling.
In a nearby room, another 99 synthetic animals gather around a waterhole, built into the gallery floor. There are tigers, wombats, horses, bears and monkeys. Predators and prey calmly bend their heads to drink from the same pool. The water is so still and blue it seems to made of plastic, but a steady drip falls from the ceiling to send slow ripples across the surface.
The animal works are the attention-seekers, but there is quiet pleasure in Cai's third installation for GOMA, Eucalyptus. A 31-metre gum tree lies on its side, filling the gallery's central foyer. The tree was transplanted from an urban redevelopment site. Walking under its twisted roots, examining the rough patterns of its bark, it is impossible not to think of its past life in the open, growing and changing as the decades slid past.
Cai's show is worth a visit to Brisbane in itself, but there are other enticements. GOMA's sister museum, the Queensland Art Gallery, is showing California Design 1930-1965 for one more week. It is a cheerful showcase of retro swimsuits, coloured surfboards and sleek furniture that feels right at home in Queensland.
The writer was a guest of Brisbane Marketing.
FIVE MORE EVENTS FOR 2014
WORLD THEATRE FESTIVAL
This showcase of contemporary performance features works that challenge the traditional definitions of theatre. February 13-23, Brisbane Powerhouse, see brisbanepowerhouse.org.
TRACE: PERFORMANCE AND ITS DOCUMENTS
Works by international art stars, including Chinese dissident Ai WeiWei, will feature alongside local performance art from the likes of Mike Parr and Brown Council. February 22-July 27, Gallery of Modern Art, see qagoma.qld.gov.au.
AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE
The next in a series of ballet exclusives in Brisbane will see the acclaimed American Ballet Theatre performing Swan Lake and other works. August 28-September 7, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, see qpac.com.au.
GOOD FOOD MONTH
Queensland's chefs and food producers will have their chance to shine when Australia's largest food festival, run by Fairfax Media, launches its first Brisbane event. July, various locations, see goodfood.com.au.
This annual event covers music, theatre, dance, comedy, opera, circus and more. Shows already announced include the theatre production Black Diggers and the latest opera from Philip Glass, The Perfect American. September 6-27, various locations, see brisbanefestival.com.au.
Qantas flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Brisbane daily; phone 13 13 13; see qantas.com.au.
For Rocky Horror fans, the Pullman Brisbane King George Squareoffers a Transylvania Essentials Package, with overnight accommodation for two, breakfast, parking, Wi-Fi, two Frank-N-Furter-inspired Cocktails and a gift pack. Prices from $269, which does not include theatre tickets. See pullmanbrisbanekgs.com.au.
The Rocky Horror Show, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, to February 9, see qpac.com.au. Opens Melbourne April 24. see rockyhorror.com.au.
Cai Guo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth, Gallery of Modern Art, until May 11, see qagoma.qld.gov.au.
California Design 1930-1965, Queensland Art Gallery, until February 9, see qagoma.qld.gov.au.
Popolo Italian Kitchen and Bar, Sidon Street, South Bank, phone 07 3846 7784, see popolodining.com.