02 August 2017

Review: Merciless Gods

Merciless Gods
Little Ones Theatre and Darebin Arts Speakeasy 
28 July 2017
Northcote Town Hall
to 5 August

Jennifer Vuletic. Merciless Gods. Photo by Sarah Walker

Yesterday there were only a handful of tickets available for Little Ones Theatre's Merciless Gods at the Northcote Town Hall, so they've snuck in an extra matinee on Saturday (August 5). Book now because otherwise you will have to go to Sydney to see it at Griffin in November. Really, it's that good.

Director Stephen Nicolazzo approached Melbourne-based author Christos Tsiolkas to adapt his series of short stories, Merciless Gods (released in 2014 but is a collection of older work), he said yes, and long-time Little One's collaborator Dan Giovannini wrote the script.

So much of the strength of Little Ones Theatre's work comes from an ongoing collaboration with a core group of artists. And, as an arts writer, it's been pretty amazing to watch this group of artists find each other and develop over the years. One of the many reasons to see new work and emerging artists is that rare opportunity to see how original voices develop in on our stages.

As all good Melbourians have read at least one of Tsiolkas's books (The Slap, Dead Europe, Head On), there's an immediate familiarity with Merciless Gods – the first story onstage story about five middle class friends could be easily re-cast from the audience. The work feels like being inside one of Tsiolkas's books, but what makes this adaption so remarkable is that it's nothing like reading Tsiolkas on the page.

There's no attempt to recreate the sense of place in his books. Tsiolkas evokes and uses place so effectively in his writing. Northcote, Brighton and Moorabin in The Slap could be no other suburbs, but as a reader you don't need to know where you are to understand the attitudes that define the area. On stage, place is mentioned but it's only seen through the design by Eugyeene Teh (set and costume) and Kate Sfetkidis (lighting).

With a colbolt blue wedge that literally stabs into the audience from a red curtain that's somewhere between blood red and fuck-me lipstick-red (Teh's use of colour to create emotion is always incredible), the eight worlds/stories place the audience as those merciless gods who watch and may want the unthinkable to take place in front of their passive gaze.

Instead of being comfortable in place, ranging from suburban backyard to a gay sauna, Giovannini's script lets us into the hearts and heads of the characters. There's no sitting back and letting environment control actions and this lets these stories find a humanity in people who are often ignored or seen as defective or inhumane humans.

These stories are about characters and people who are rarely seen on our stages and in our stories, or  those who are invisible or ignored in our lives. Along with the queer and Australian immigrant stories expected from Tsiolkas, are people whose circumstances or behaviours leave them fading or invisible. There's a middle aged woman dealing with her teenage son beginning to treat her like she's nothing, an older women watching male gay porn, a man in prison for a violent crime, a man who's chosen to end his life surrounded by his family.

Each are stories that confront – it's difficult to feel for someone whose behviour makes us want to ignore or hate them – but the production doesn't try to shock. Shock lets us distance ourself from characters. By finding common emotions and thoughts – we know the pain of grief, the irrationality of wanting revenge, the blindness of love –, it's much harder to say "that would never be me or mine".

All of which could fall apart if the cast (Sapidah Kian, Peter Paltos, Paul Blenheim, Brigid Gallacher, Charles Purcell and the incredible Jennifer Vuletic) didn't bring themselves to their characters. Again, they don't let the abhorrent or simply annoying behaviours of their characters create distance, and all find a personal connection with character that lets the audience find their own connection.

It's this connection that Nicolozzo ensures is always on the stage and this disturbs far more than anything the characters do. It's easy to connect with lovely people; it's confronting to connect with – and easily laugh with – people who you'd never look at in the street or are happy to pretend don't exist.