The works of Greek-Australian author Christos Tsiolkas have been the subject of some fairly significant adaptations: his debut novel Loaded was turned into the award-winning 1998 film Head On, and both his novels The Slap and Barracuda were adapted into critically-acclaimed TV series.
So when leading independent theatre director Stephen Nicolazzo’s partner suggested that he should approach Tsiolkas about adapting the author’s short story anthology Merciless Gods, Nicolazzo’s response was simple: “that will never fucking happen”.
The conversation between Nicolazzo and his partner came up when the pair were listening to a radio interview with Tsiolkas in 2014, soon after the release of Merciless Gods.
“He was talking about one of the stories called Petals, which is one of my favourites,” Nicolazzo says. “And he was describing how Jean Genet is such an influence on his writing, in particular with that story. I was so taken by that and excited, because I love him as a writer.”
Nicolazzo didn’t think Tsiolkas, who has his own experiences in writing for theatre, would give him the go ahead. But the director, known best for his boldly theatrical, high camp queer work as the director of Little Ones Theatre, decided to take a wild shot and had his then agent arrange a meeting with Tsiolkas to pitch his idea.
“We met up in a little dinky bar in Melbourne and drank wine and talked,” Nicolazzo says. “I opened with: ‘I really want to make an adaptation of Merciless Gods that is inspired by Jean Genet, but in the realm of Thomastown’. He said months later ‘You had me at Genet and Thomastown’.”
Over the next two and a half years, Nicolazzo worked with playwright Dan Giovanni to find an appropriate theatrical form for these stories.
“Meeting one of your idols, and then having both a personal and creative relationship is an extraordinary thing,” Nicolazzo says.
While Tsiolkas gave the pair plenty of creative licence, he was also intensely involved in the development process, offering advice and guidance.
“He helped Dan with a monologue in the show that we were all struggling to find a voice for, called Sticks and Stones,” Nicolazzo says. “It’s an incredible story about a mother dealing with the patriarchy and watching her son become this evil man.”
Like most of Tsiolkas’s writing, Merciless Gods is full of heavy material, painting an uncomfortable picture of Australia, tackling family, sex, violence and identity in multicultural Australia.
That may seem quite a departure from previous works by Little Ones Theatre, which is best known for its bright and fabulous takes on modern classics Dangerous Liaisons and Salome, and Charles Busch’s camp masterpiece Psycho Beach Party.
But Nicolazzo says it’s a natural extension and maturing for the company, and offers the company the opportunity to explore a wider range of Australian characters in a queer theatrical form.
“It’s a queering of ideas about Australian identity, because it’s presenting characters and voices that you don’t see. The people kept to the sidelines are put front and centre in this work. It’s celebrating otherness and making it the focal point.”
Featured image by Sarah Walker