Stephen Nicolazzo Takes Tsiolkas' 'Merciless Gods' From The Page To The Stage

26 July 2017 | 5:41 pm | Maxim Boon

"Then my partner said, 'You should really work with him.' I laughed and said, 'There's no fucking way that's ever going to happen.'"

Director Stephen Nicolazzo and writer Christos Tsiolkas share much in common. Both come from immigrant families, both are artists who have looked to the queer experience for inspiration, and both share an attraction to a bitter-sweet aesthetic, a volatile place where beauty and savagery intersect.

But despite these similarities, Nicolazzo — an indie theatre maker with a successful, yet small-scale company — could not have imagined he'd have the opportunity to collaborate with the celebrated author, whose novels The Slap and Barracuda have both received big budget TV adaptations in recent years. "My partner and I were listening to the radio one morning, and Christos was on talking about Merciless Gods. He was explaining one of the stories and his affinity with Jean Genet, and I was so intrigued and excited by that," Nicolazzo recalls. "Then my partner said, 'You should really work with him.' I laughed and said, 'There's no fucking way that's ever going to happen.'"

This knee-jerk scepticism was proved wrong after the young director decided to make contact with Tsiolkas. The pair's shared passions proved to be a simpatico springboard for a creative partnership. "Christos and I met up one afternoon over wine. Within the first five minutes, we agreed to work together on adapting Merciless Gods. Then we just enjoyed an afternoon drinking and talking about life and art and the kind of theatre that I make and our personal histories, both being ethnic queer kids," Nicolazzo shares. "It was a pretty mind-blowing experience, especially considering how much I loved reading his work growing up. It's one of those moments that is completely surreal - something I'd never have thought possible."

The collection of 15 short stories that make up Tsiolkas' Merciless Gods explore the complexities of migrant life in Melbourne and the way sexuality and cultural identity are altered, confounded, and even upended by the isolation of being a stranger in a strange land. From gay saunas to prison cells to porn shoots, Tsiolkas offers an unapologetically gritty window on this experience, channelling a far darker energy than that found in some of his more widely-known books. Nonetheless, there remains a distinctively Tsiolkasian quality to this collection of queer narratives. Much like his bestseller The Slap, the stories in Merciless Gods juxtapose moments of extreme violence with the humdrum occurrences of everyday life. "He takes that kind of familiar banality and turns the volume way up, so high that it becomes something else," Nicolazzo observes. "And that's really informed the process of bringing this work to the stage - it's the way I've dissected each of the stories, just taking one strand of it and then pulling it apart so that it feels otherworldly while remaining familiar."

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

"Then my partner said, 'You should really work with him.' I laughed and said, 'There's no fucking way that's ever going to happen.'"

Co-founder of queer theatre collective Little Ones Theatre, Nicolazzo's canon of productions for the company bear a shared hallmark in the way they hijack traditional theatrical tropes to communicate the otherness of the queer identity. This approach has often favoured material that has some measure of historical precedent, such as Bram Stoker's Dracula or Oscar Wilde's The Little Prince. By contrast, Merciless Gods is altogether more overt, in both its contemporary, urban setting and its connection to queer culture. However, that hasn' t stopped Nicolazzo discovering a surprising number of classical resonances in Tsiolkas' story-telling. "We're embracing the literary vernacular, and allowing the characters to actually speak in a very pointed, poetic way, in much the same way that some of the characters in something like Genet's The Balcony might speak," he explains. "I think there's something extremely classical to having those unspoken desires spoken out loud. We've actually found ourselves going back to ideas of Greek Theatre, and that kind of really amped-up, robust, rich language that you can use in those ancient forms."

Nicolazzo has worked with playwright Dan Giovannoni​ to take eight of the Merciless Gods canon and transpose them for the stage, but Tsiolkas has remained a close collaborator on the project throughout, as an advisor and sounding board. "It's been really great to have his presence because he loves theatre. He has a very good theatrical eye," Nicolazzo says. "Christos said to us from the outset, 'Don't treat my work with total reverence,' which is an incredible gift. He's so, so generous, he's like, 'Just fuck with it.' Having that level of freedom comes from a negotiation process between Dan as playwright, Christos as novelist, and me as theatre-maker. Theatre is all about finding the best provocation for a story, and then working out how that can best be translated to the stage. With this production there are three minds working together to figure this out, feeding into the solution, being crafty together to find the best realisation possible."

While Tsiolkas' writings have been brought to life before, most notably in ABC's adaptations of The Slap and Barracuda, Nicolazzo's theatrical vision has passed the characters of Merciless Gods through a uniquely stylised lens. "It's not necessarily how he would have always seen his work being translated, but there's this energy and, almost a giddiness that comes out of him when he sees it done in this kind of heightened, extreme way," Nicolazzo says. "It's really rewarding to see this writer, who I so admire, so pleased with the interpretational experience being fed into his work. And I think that's been very satisfying for him too, because telling something straight is one thing, but actually, if you get to the heart of these stories, they're anything but."

Little Ones Theatre presents Merciless Gods, until 5 Aug at Northcote Town Hall.