‘I find myself not only questioning the value of these tears, but also their cost. Who pays for these tears?’: Robert Reid on the Little Ones’ Merciless Gods
Merciless Gods, the adaptation by Little Ones Theatre of Christos Tsiolkas’s 2014 collection of short stories, arrives at Arts Centre Melbourne with a trail of praise in its wake. And rightly so. It’s a competent, well-crafted evening of theatre, an aesthetic step forward for the company. It’s also a difficult and dark work that should, at the very least, leave its audience with questions. I’m going to try and unpack some of mine.
Critically acclaimed in Melbourne and Sydney, and winner of two Green Room Awards (including Best New Writing and Best Performer), this adaptation by Dan Giovannoni selects a range of stories from the collection and recreates them faithfully, if uncritically. Each is a vignette of how we are cruel to each other, exploring the wilful destruction caused by people in pain.
Most scenes in Merciless Gods provide space for bravura solo performances, and the monologues are by far the best works of the show. The actors are most in touch with the text when they are alone with it; the few ensemble scenes feel airy and disconnected, not talking to each other so much as at each other. They remind me of the plays we used to see at Playbox in the ‘90s and many at the Melbourne Theatre Company today: presentational in style and played for laughs. Rhythmically, each scene ends on a punchy one-liner or image, an almost audible rimshot which signals closure, underlining the scene as if it doesn’t trust the clarity of what’s gone before or, perhaps worse, the audience’s ability to recognise it.
The comedy throughout falls flat because it doesn’t arise out of character or situation, instead trading on familiarity. The audience recognises types and touchstones, laughing along in that “they’re talking about me” kind of way. Familiar suburbs and landmarks are liberally scattered through the text. These are the kind of jokes that date rapidly, trading on clichéd representations of middle class aspiration or Eurocentric intellectualism. For instance, as lively as The Hair of the Dog is between the mother (Jennifer Vuletic), her repressed daughter (Bridget Gallacher) and even more repressed partner (Paul Blenheim), it plays out a lot like an episode of Ab Fab and doesn’t really land.
Likewise, Saturn Return feels less successful as an adaptation. In the book, the heart of this vignette is the relationship between the son and his boyfriend, but on stage the that relationship is subsumed in the family’s casual banter and their playful avoidance of the father’s imminent assisted suicide. It’s all jokey as the family discusses the old man’s life, until the final image when the boys return to stage to howl their anguish and loss. This seems to come out of nowhere, given how breezy the whole family has been only a moment before. Similarly, the title piece feels like unfocused sniping until the monologue at its centre, which focuses our attention but fails to establish the sense of a group of old friends whose time is coming to an end.
Generally the night feels distant. Perhaps it doesn’t translate well to a bigger space like the Fairfax. Sophie Gillfeather-Spetere notes of the Sydney production that the “the atmosphere becomes thick in the tiny Griffin Theatre, helping to fill the space with scents of Tsiolkas’ writing – smoke, sex and shit.” This sense of intimacy feels necessary to the production: the space of the Fairfax makes some of the work ring hollow, feeling as if the emotions are artificially pushed out. Perhaps this is the lack I’m feeling in the ensemble work: the monologues, with a single point of focus, draw us back into the confidence of the performers. There is a beautiful moment when the junkie (Blenheim) in Porn 2 kisses his boyfriend in his imagination, cradled in his lap like Christ and the Madonna in the Pieta; but this moment is undone almost immediately by Saturn Return, which is comically overloaded with sentiment.
This vignette is followed by what feels like a worryingly sympathetic portrayal of a murderer who sympathises with an old serial paedophile in Petals. In much of the commentary around the original book and the stage adaptation, there is a recurring theme of the unvarnished portrayal of characters who lack redeeming qualities. Layla Sanai, for instance, writes in The Independent of this character in the stories: “Tsiolkas is never judgemental about his characters. In Petals, a Greek man who murdered his wife and has been subjected to continued racist abuse in prison snaps when a gentle old man who tends the prison flowers is attacked by thuggish fellow prisoners. Not for Tsiolkas the easy way out of the wrongly convicted: the old man is a paedophile. Yet Tsiolkas is capable of immensely beautiful prose as well as revelling in the dark side of humanity. After the attack, the old man peels off flakes of skin which “float into his lap like dying petals”.”
In the adaptation, this portrayal feels distinctly un-ironic. The strong stance, the powerful and assured voice, the downlight that casts his body in stark relief like the statue of a Greek god, make it feel like a moment of glory. The murder of the wife in this scene functions as little more than set up, putting the murderer in the location he needs to be for the story to progress. It’s barely a plot device, casual at best and triumphant at worst. In a country that averages one woman murdered by her former or current partner every week, I just can’t get past the lightness with which such a murder is tossed onto the stage every night.
Even so, each scene contains its beauty. Nicolazzo stages striking images images and Tsiolkas, by way of Giovannoni, writes them. But does this beauty justify the content, or is it overloaded with aesthetics at the expense of depth?
The night I saw it, I overheard audience members around me saying, “yes, very good but very dark…”, or “well I can see what they’re doing but it’s not for me….” Of course, other people were brimming with praise: it’s certainly a work that divides audiences, as good theatre should. But the only moment of really shocking writing, the only moment that physically made me flinch, is in Petals when the criminal suggests that the girls (plural) raped by the old paedophile might have enjoyed it. I’m not even sure how to process that. Is it enough to simply present this sans comment or context? Is this what it means to make confronting theatre?
A little over 10 years ago, Anne Bogart: “It is easy to elicit tears. If you want to make people cry, if that is your intention, this is fairly simple to accomplish, because the theatre is a storytelling medium where emotions can be easily manipulated and massaged. The question is, what is the value of these tears? What are you doing with the audience? Are you after a Pavlovian response that is quickly forgotten or a complex recognition that sends reverberations into lives?… What is the value of my tears? Are the tears about compassion or are they an automatic affective response? Do they wash a stained conscience or cleanse or lighten a heavy heart? Or do the tears merely reinforce self-pity?” (And Then You Act: Making art in an unpredictable world, Taylor and Fracncis)
I find myself not only questioning the value of the tears in Merciless Gods, but their cost. Who pays for these tears? I fear for the silent and silenced victims who live in the shadows of these unflinching stories of terrible people. The Mother (Gallacher) in Sticks, Stones says of her son’s casual hate speech that she did not “trust his ease with words that hurt so much. I refuse to believe that they have been exorcised of their venom and their cruelty.’”
So do I.
Merciless Gods, adapted by Dan Giovannoni from stories by Christos Tsiolkas, directed by Stephen Nicolazzo. Set and costume design by Eugyeene Teh, lighting design by Katie Sfetkidis, sound design by Daniel Nixon. Performed by Paul Blenheim, Stefan Bramble, Brigid Gallacher, Sapidah Kian, Charles Purcell and Jennifer Vuletic. At Arts Centre Melbourne for Midsumma Festival. Closed.