Merciless Gods (Little Ones Theatre)

29 July 2017 | 2:25 pm | Maxim Boon

"A hard-won, supremely accomplished equilibrium between the beautiful and the barbaric."

Christos Tsiolkas' Merciless Gods is not a book that readily calls out for the stage. This collection of 15 stories riffing on various shades of migrant experience and the queer identity is as much a thesis on human suffering as it is an exploration of cultural otherness. Much like his titular deities, Tsiolkas treats his characters with unflinching brutality, whether it be via racism, sexual degradation, addiction, disease, or suicide vest. In their literary form, these horrifying tortures - rapes, bereavements, dismemberments, murders, described in graphic detail - could easily be too gratuitous, if not for the extraordinary eloquence of their architect. But Tsiolkas' ability to temper such appalling misery with a virtuosic control of language is a quality that seems inextricably bound to the written word.

An attempt to bring this work into the real world using mere naturalism, as was the case for the ABC's TV serials of Tsiolkas' novels The Slap and Barracuda, would likely fail to do it justice; the power of these stories goes far beyond the bare bones of their plots. Little Ones Theatre's Stephen Nicolazzo, in partnership with playwright-adapter Dan Giovannoni, takes a more direct approach, leapfrogging the uncanny altogether to embrace the lyricism and emotional heft of Tsiolkas' writing.

The result is both breathtaking and shattering, as the opposing fault lines of our revulsion and our empathy grind, catch, and shear us apart. These gutting scenarios, one after the other, are offered as a succession of exquisite exhibits in a museum of rarefied pain; unspeakable ordeals forged into golden monuments. Even as we are forced to confront such wretched traumas, the sonorous, otherworldly language, orated with all the gravity of a Greek tragedy, reveals a touching emotional truth, connecting these alien experiences to a relatable humanity. It is heartbreaking without being garishly sentimental - this storytelling refuses to compromise its intensity with any cathartic redemption.

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Director Stephen Nicolazzo continues to cement his reputation as one of Melbourne's - and dare I say, Australia's - most dynamic and creatively assured theatre makers. His treatments of each of the eight narratives that feature in this production are bespoke in their varying degrees of stylism, but nonetheless unified by a consistent push-pull between the poetic and the pitiful. Through thoughtful, rigorous, but trusting direction, he extracts performances from his actors that communicate with powerful sincerity while still remaining coherent in their heightened theatricality. Every member of the ensemble (Jennifer Vuletic, Sapidah Kian, Peter Paltos, Paul Blenheim, Brigid Gallacher and Charles Purcell) is given a moment to reveal the full extent of their skills - there's not a single weak link in this superb cast. Vuletic is particularly impressive, hopscotching between different nationalities, physicalities, and even genders, summoning dark comedy, aching tenderness, and gut-churning hate with ease.

Designer Eugyeene Teh has created an elegant, deceptively peaceful set for this violent universe, with a tapered thrust flanked with seating banks, and an opulent red curtained backdrop. As with Nicolazzo's direction and Giovannoni's script, every gesture of this production finds a hard-won, supremely accomplished equilibrium between the beautiful and the barbaric; the darkest shadows revealed by cleansing glimpses of diaphanous light.

Little Ones Theatre presents Merciless Gods 'til 5 Aug at Northcote Town Hall.