Artistic director Iain Grandage is feeling “incredibly hopeful” about this year’s Perth Festival. As the state experienced a rise in Covid cases in January and borders almost reopened, there was a risk the festival would be greatly impacted. But, bar a few cancelled shows, Perth Festival is forging ahead with three weeks of theatre, immersive art and live music.

“We all go through moments of hesitancy as you stare at the effects of Covid elsewhere,” says Grandage. “However, after an initial shock of realising it was here, there seems to be a sense of celebration. People feel very energised about the possibility of going out and celebrating stories of this place.”

The citywide festival, which runs from February 11 to March 6, has a fluid theme – “wardan”, the Noongar word for ocean. It follows on from last year’s “bilya” (river). Grandage tells Broadsheet the idea of the ocean is enveloping and immersive – like many of the theatrical experiences on offer. “Be it Ta-ku, Patch’s Lighthouse or The Smallest Stage, all of them are about immersion and what it is to be immersed inside an environment,” he says.

The ocean is a salve and it’s cleansing, but it’s also a barrier and a potential danger, Grandage says. For the artistic director, who’s embracing a program that places Western Australian talent front and centre, it’s also about celebrating what we have right now. “We are obsessed with the ocean. I do like the idea of the sun sinking into the ocean at the end of every day and having a renewed sense of gratitude about the place we live.”

We asked Grandage to talk us through our top picks from the program.

Panawathi Girl
“Being able to celebrate a brand new Indigenous musical inside the festival just fills me with deep excitement,” he says. “There’s a sense of Western Australia being the home of these large-scale Indigenous statements of place involving music.” Panawathi Girl is set in the Pilbara in the 1960s. It’s playwright David Milroy’s first major work since Waltzing the Wilarra, over a decade ago. It’s about hippies, cowboys, pollies, protesters and red dirt. “It’s got deep political punch, exquisite singing, beautiful love songs and energised country-and-western and soul music,” says Grandage. “And whilst it’s set in the Pilbara, it’s quintessentially West Australian in its view of the world. It makes you fall in love with a multitude of characters.”

Panawathi Girl runs at His Majesty’s Theatre from February 8–13.

Mary Stuart
Geraldton-born playwright Kate Mulvany has reinvented the story of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I with powerhouse actors Kate Walsh and Caroline Brazier. “Getting to build a large-scale, international-quality work using all-local creatives and cast is a deep thrill,” says the artistic director. It occupies the main stage for the entire festival, and the main spectacles here are the commanding performances by Walsh and Brazier as they toy with rivalry, power and survival in a world dominated by men. “It’s exquisitely beautiful.”

Mary Stuart is on at Heath Ledger Theatre from February 9–25.

The Smallest Stage
A show that shouldn’t be overlooked is The Smallest Stage – a tender, tangential response to something we’ve all experienced in the pandemic: separation. You’ll be given a set of headphones as you listen to instructions and follow the true story of a dad in prison connecting with his kids through an imaginative world. “It’s directed by Matt Edgerton, who directed Black Brass for our last festival,” says Grandage. “His designer, Zoë Atkinson – one of the finest designers in the country – has expressed such a deep affection for this show. It shows the breadth and range of humanity that parenting involves.” And, depending what tickets you select, you might be called onstage to step into writer and lead artist Kim Crotty’s shoes. “It’s amazingly imaginative.”

The Smallest Stage is on at Studio Underground from February 23–27.

Sexy. Sensitive. Sticky. There are a number of ways to describe Joel Bray as he dances across the room, scattering heartfelt stories and clutches of sugar. What the Wiradjuri creator and performer enjoys most about his show Daddy is that it changes slightly with each audience. Viewers are seated closely before him, usually sat cross-legged on the floor or slowly tracing his steps across the stage. It’s a deeply personal and intimate experience, as Bray shares his connection to culture, loss, grief and sexuality. He also strips down to his undies and covers himself in sugar. Grab tickets while you still can.

Daddy is on at Studio Underground from March 2–6.

Ta-ku & Friends: Songs To Experience
“We’re taking over an entire building that used to be a ladies’ club,” says Grandage. As part of the music line-up for Perth Festival, musician Ta-ku is sharing his debut album in an unusual way. Nine rooms inside the historic Lawson Apartments will be transformed with light and art to create an environment connected to each track on the forthcoming release. “It might be projection-mapped in one room, or a full projection installation in another,” says Grandage. “It’s a kind of choose-your-own-adventure at the [old] Karrakatta Club.” This year’s music program is packed with locals; in addition to Ta-ku, Stella Donnelly plays a show at B Shed and Methyl Ethyl will perform in the round at European Foods Warehouse.

Step into Ta-ku’s Songs To Experience at Lawson Apartments from February 18–March 6.

Patch’s Lighthouse
Part art, part science, part kids’ rave, Patch’s Lighthouse is a multi-room experience designed for children for all ages (and their parents). “We co-commissioned it with Adelaide Festival, and this has been our first opportunity to bring it here,” says Grandage. The “house” of light artworks and performances is one you can explore at your own pace. It’s about fostering wonderment and sparking curiosity at the world around us.

Enter Patch’s Lighthouse at Octagon Theatre from February 15–20.

The Ninth Wave
At City Beach, dancers will move to an original score composed by Regurgitator’s Ben Ely in The Ninth Wave. “It’s very striking and right on the beach,” Grandage says. Dance and theatre artists from The Farm and Co3 Contemporary Dance have created an apocalyptic scene, with a burnt-out car buried in sand and ladders reaching into the night sky. The audience faces the dark expanse of the ocean as a “party to end all parties” unfolds before them.

Witness The Ninth Wave at City Beach Park from March 1–5.

And the Earth Will Swallow Them Whole
“It is weep inducing,” says Grandage about the new dance work commissioned for Perth Festival. “It’s as much about emotional turmoil as it is about the ocean itself.” This poetic dance work sees six dancers move with undulating black silk to a score of live piano and electronica. Choreographer Rachel Arianne Ogle draws on rituals around death, burial and honouring the body, addressing ideas of power, fragility and the impermanence of nature. “It’s truly spectacular,” he says.

See And the Earth Will Swallow Them Whole at Studio Underground from February 10–14.