Merciless Gods review (Griffin Theatre, Sydney)

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In all cultures there are dominant narratives that form an unquestionable image of a society’s history and identity. These are the narratives upheld by the kinds of people who have sat in positions of power for hundreds of years.

But sitting just to the side is a rich reservoir of counter-narratives that, when pulled together, make up a more complex, nuanced and honest reflection.

Greek-Australian author Christos Tsiolkas has always been more interested in exploring those counter-narratives in an extraordinarily forthright and brutally poetic manner. He’s both interested in a diversity of characters and communities, as well as a diversity of attitudes and psyches: the people he chooses to write about often act and think in ways that are repugnant to polite society, deeply sad, challenging or terrifying.

Despite this bleakness, his work always feels vital and strangely joyous; it’s full to the brim with the blood and guts of real life.

Tsiolkas explored Australia’s complex societal fabric in his 2008 novel The Slap, but his 2014 collection of short stories, Merciless Gods, sees that fabric spread even further and the exploration run deeper. These stories see ordinary people grapple with morality in the backyards of suburban houses, in bedrooms, on porn sets, in gay bathhouses, and in prison.

But first and foremost, Tsiolkas is a great storyteller with a sense of dramatic development rivalled by few of his contemporaries. It’s the quality that makes his work so rich for dramatic adaptation, whether it be film (Head On), TV (The Slap, Barracuda) or now theatre.

Melbourne-based queer theatre company Little Ones Theatre has been subverting theatrical expectations, forms, tropes and roles for the last several years. In Merciless Gods, that subversion goes even further as the company seeks to give Australia a new perspective from which to examine itself. It’s subverting this country’s dominant narratives and offering new ones.

Director Stephen Nicolazzo and writer Dan Giovannoni have selected eight of the 15 short stories from Tsiolkas’s book and translated them into something boldly theatrical: an intimate but near-operatic form.

According to those dominant narratives, these are characters with small lives. In Merciless Gods their dilemmas are at the very centre as they attempt to wrestle control of their own fates and the fates of those around them: the drug addict who turns to porn to pay off debt and start anew, the conservative mother who discovers porn and something more unsettling, the man facing an undignified health decline, the woman repulsed by her son’s growing cruelty and misogyny, and the man entering a bathhouse to experience sex with a man for the first time.

Some stories are told as monologues and others are big ensemble pieces. The adaptation is full of insight, and has a beautifully economical and evocative use of language, but there are a few stories that work better on the page. The stories Giovannoni and Nicolazzo have chosen share a number of thematic similarities but some simply require a richness of description that doesn’t always translate perfectly to dialogue.

Nicolazzo has spent a lot of his career creating camp and brilliantly funny theatre, and takes a slightly different and more dangerous turn in this production. He still brings melodramatic notes into play, magnifying these wonderful characters and making them sing, with the assistance of Eugyeene Teh’s striking and stylish design, Katie Sfetkidis’s vivid lighting, and Daniel Nixon’s frequently affecting score.

The cast is superb across the board — Paul Blenheim, Bridgid Gallacher, Sapidah Kian, Peter Paltos, Charles Purcell and Jennifer Vuletic — a reminder of how many great actors work in Australia’s indie theatre sector. Vuletic is a stand-out as two very different mothers, while Kian and Paltos finish the piece with two wonderfully dark but hugely impactful monologues.

Given the heavy subject matter in many of the stories, moments in the play might be difficult for some audiences to stomach. But Nicolazzo and Giovannoni tell these stories with great taste and restraint, and the potential discomfort is usually displaced by surprising feelings of empathy and compassion for the enormous suffering of those on stage.

Perhaps the audience would be more merciful gods than the ones who put these characters in these situations. Perhaps not.

Merciless Gods is at Griffin’s SBW Stables Theatre until November 25.

Featured image by Sarah Walker

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