“Existence,” hard-boiled cop Grubbe (Colin Friels) tells Jimmy (Tom Conroy), a drug addict and pusher who Grubbe is courting to turn informant, “is an endless circle of life and death. But ultimately, the aim of all life is self-destruction. That’s mortido.”
It’s the kind of grim, solipsistic philosophising that the first season of HBO’s True Detective was loaded with. Mortido, a new play by Angela Betzien, produced here by the State Theatre Company of SA and Belvoir, has much in common with True Detective. There’s Grubbe himself, of course, who could be seen as a composite of that series’ embittered intellectual Rusty, played with career-redefining intensity by Matthew McConaughey, and Woody Harrelson’s gruff Marty, Rusty’s partner in a Southern American homicide unit.
Like Rusty and Marty, Grubbe and Jimmy are an archetypal odd couple, drawn together by necessity but held there by equal parts admiration and thrilling contempt. Mortido also, like True Detective, has a gothic flavour, though its source is the barrios of Mexico rather than the swamps of Louisiana, and takes place in a ferociously male universe that hangs together by way of obscure codes — the honour of thieves, and the kinship of men with too much power — maintained by the ever-present threat of violence.
If the locus of True Detective’s nihilism was Rusty’s penchant for Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, in Mortido — Freud’s term for his theory of the death drive — it is cocaine, a drug that Betzien describes in her program note as one of “image, individualism, ego, sex, greed, lies and short-term gain”. The idea for the play came to Betzien after she read a newspaper article about Sydney’s “cocaine blizzard”, a storm that may end in the backstreets of Cabramatta but begins in South America, on the infamous El Camino de la Muerte — The Road of Death — that leads from La Paz to Coroico in the Yungas region of Bolivia.
It is a world away from smalltime dealer Jimmy, a TAFE student used to pushing parrot, blow, charlie — it seems to have as many names as users — at a suburban food court. Jimmy’s not sure what he wants from life. His brother-in-law Monte (Renato Musolino) thinks he knows: a BMW, a house with harbour views, a private beach; the coke-snorter’s dream. But Monte, in the scheme of things, isn’t that high up the chain, either, and his playboy arrogance is thrown into sharp relief by Grubbe’s reality checks.
“He’s somewhere in the low middle,” Grubbe tells Jimmy, but those pulling the strings of the globalised drug trade are people like Heinrich Barbie (Friels again), son of the notorious Gestapo torturer Klaus who, like many Nazis, fled to South America (in his case, with the complicity of the United States) after the war. The kingpin, however, is La Madre (The Mother), a semi-mythical figure “no-one’s ever had the guts to fuck with”. No-one, that is, except Monte in his coked-up self-importance — or should that be death wish?
It is no wonder that Freud’s shadow looms large over Mortido, and not simply in the obvious interplay of sex and death or the play’s recurrent phallic symbolism. As with much of Betzien’s work, such as 2011’s The Dark Room, the world of Mortido is a liminal one that exists on the porous border of a frightening dreamscape populated with all the desires, traumatic memories, and painful emotions that, according to Freud, comprise our subconscious minds. El Gallito (The Little Rooster), unsettlingly played by David Valencia, seems to straddle the two worlds, embodying for Jimmy both the desire for sexual pleasure and for death.
Other hallmarks of Betzien’s work are evident: the centrality of children, here their innocence compromised by conditioning — gifts of toy guns, participation in cockfighting — for a life of violence and cruelty, and frequent homages to genre storytelling, especially contemporary horror films but also pulp detective fiction and the Western as well.
It’s a heady brew, made all the more exhilarating by an inexorable ratcheting up of tension. Though not always subtle — Betzien is not beyond the occasional grand gesture or eruption of shock and awe viciousness à la Sarah Kane — it is effective, and undeniably true to the reality of the war on drugs. “There are tales from the old days of Mexico,” Grubbe tells Jimmy, “that’d drain your blood”. Mortido begins with one such tale, the story of a boy cut open with a carving knife and filled with packages of cocaine. Whatever its darkly hallucinatory qualities, the play is, perhaps more than anything, a savage indictment of the war on drugs.
With four acts and an interval, Mortido is the most structurally ambitious of Betzien’s plays to date. Though sprawling, it feels intimate, even claustrophobic, an effect augmented by Robert Cousins’ gloomy, arrowhead-shaped set that combines, on one side, the washbasins and mirrored tiles of a dingy nightclub and, on the other, a Perspex screen that partitions the stage from a reflective wall. At any given moment, the characters are tailed by multiple reflections of themselves — id, ego, and superego, perhaps, locked in a precarious dance.
Conroy and Friels, the latter, in addition to Grubbe, performing multiple parts in a variety of accents, are superb. Musolino’s Monte, a weirdly timeless echo of the coke-fucked Wall Street brat pack of the 1980s, oozes sinister charm in green turn-ups, loafers, and a checked blazer replete with natty pocket square. Louisa Mignone, though underutilised, is effective in the dual role of Scarlet, Monte’s wife, and Sybille, a comically inscrutable Berlin hipster who mixes drug dealing with running organic supermarkets. Leticia Cáceres, a frequent collaborator with Betzien, directs in a pleasingly complementary fashion, but there are moments towards the end of the play when a firmer hand might have been useful in bringing more intelligibility to a stage that becomes increasingly laden: with clutter, symbolism, and the passage of characters between not always clear states of being.
If the play has one major disappointment, however, it is that not all of the arrows Betzien shoots in the first half hit their targets in the second. The expected bloodbath never comes — no bad thing in itself necessarily, except that here the play’s sudden, rather soft conclusion, feels at odds with what has gone before. The tension that Betzien consummately builds over the course of the first two acts is not only left undeveloped in the second two, it is not even replicated. The result is a play that, ultimately, feels uneven, lodged somewhere between its formal expansiveness and what I suspect is Betzien’s true métier — the microcosmic drama that reveals more of the world than the world itself.
But maybe, after all, Mortido can do nothing but implode, its own death wish satisfied as the stage plunges into darkness, the self-consuming logic of our calamitous war on drugs writ large.