Review: Merciless Gods

Gods and monsters rendered achingly human 

By Bradley Storer

Queer performance collective Little Ones Theatre returns to the stage with the critically acclaimed production Merciless Gods for Midsumma Festival. In this production playwright Dan Giovannoni adapts Christos Tsiolkas’ collection of short stories to present a series of vignettes which encompass lives across the social and economic strata of Australian society. It’s a thrilling reminder of the burning necessity for Australian stories on our stages.

What remains most striking in the memory is director Stephen Nicolazzo’s powerful use of imagery as he channels the divine forces that give the play their name and inspiration. We see a heroin addict bathed in the heavenly halo of a Christian saint, we see a murderer locked in the gracefully muscular pose of a Grecian statue and we see a bedraggled and defiantly grotesque old woman sipping from a cask of cheap wine. This magnificent imagery is only made possible through the transporting simplicity of Eugyeene Teh’s set design, the glorious lighting of Katie Sfetkidis and the seductively mysterious sound design of Daniel Nixon.

The ensemble are excellent across the board, never more so than in the opening scene where they bounce off each other effortlessly in a seemingly normal suburban story that morphs into an unsettling and disturbing account of human brutality.

Each actor is given their moment to shine. Brigid Gallacher plays the voluptuous mother disgusted by the baseness of her own offspring. Paul Blenheim plays a drug addict enraptured by the twin figures of his straight best friend and the Lord Jesus Christ. Stefan Bramble stars as an imprisoned murderer both terrifying and tender in equal measure. Charles Purcell embodies a grieving gay son of a dying man. And Sapidah Kian, in the final glorious sequence, stars as the domestic Delphic Oracle relaying a vision of ecstasy.

The only negative, since there was seemingly no vocal amplification used, was the loss of textual and vocal clarity whenever the actors would play upstage away from the audience – an unfortunate side effect from a space as acoustically unforgiving as the Fairfax.

If forced to pick a standout performance it would have to be Jennifer Vuletic’s. Whether she is prowling the stage proudly nude as a pretentiously provocative German novelist, curling and contorting in spasms of pain as an aged Australian patriarch or bowed over in operatic fits of grief as an Italian mother mourning the loss of her son, Vuletic is a charismatic chameleon.

This unapologetically queer production, centred on the outsiders and outcasts of society even at their most reprehensible, is so luscious and commandingly seductive in its urgency and power that it’s impossible to resist. The cast and creatives of Merciless Gods have crafted a piece overflowing with horror and love, and is a must see this Midsumma season!

Merciless Gods plays at Arts Centre Melbourne until 10 February as part of Midsumma Festival. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 182 183.

Photograph: Pier Carthew