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Merciless Gods

Sophie Gillfeather-Spetere

Christos Tsiolkas' dark vignettes carve out their space on stage at Sydney's SBW Stables Theatre.
Merciless Gods

Image production photos: Sapidah Kian in Merciless Gods. Photo (c) Sarah Walker via Griffin Theatre.

Christos Tsiolkas never creates characters without fault. There is no cheap sentimentality, just a clear view that people are capable and culpable – capable of poetry and love and tenderness as much as they are culpable of violence and anger and vanity. Anyone familiar with his writings, or the film and television adaptations that have followed, will know much of what to expect in the first stage adaptation of his work, Merciless Gods.

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Surrounding the fallibility and fragility of life are the other signposts of Tsiolkas’ work – race, culture, family, sexuality, class, politics, violence and identity. It’s a lot to fit into a two-hour play, but Dan Giovanni has intelligently adapted Tsiolkas’ book of short stories into a series of vignettes. Each scene is a gripping, even traumatic, look at the interiors of contemporary lives. Giovanni has faithfully summoned the spirit of Tsiolkas’ Australia. For the characters of Merciless Gods, the traumas of our shared history have left a stale stain in the soil that emerges into the personal and domestic with rage and force.

There is no weak link in this cast of five. Sapadiah Kian manages intelligence in every movement and effortlessly inhabits characters from young travel writer to ageing Surry Hills bohemian. Paul Blenheim is excellent as the tragic and sweet heroin addict recalling the last time he saw his lover. Charles Purcell brings vulnerability and sincerity to every role – his turn as the son seeing off an imperfect father is devastating in the way it captures how a child can defensively love a parent who has continually let them down. And Brigid Gallacher’s monologue as mother to a teenage son whose body, mind and mouth is growing beyond her influence is chilling in its eroticism. But Jennifer Vuletic’s is the star of this production. Her figure takes over the stage – be it dressed in the black of a Greek mother in mourning or totally nude, her nakedness only emphasised by a bilious gold kimono.

Stephen Nicolazzo’s direction cuts the right frame for this talented cast. The atmosphere becomes thick in the tiny Griffin Theatre, helping to fill the space with scents of Tsiolkas’ writing – smoke, sex and shit. Though in reality we only have the former. The weight of the mood is balanced by Eugyeene Teh’s set and costume designs which dare to be a little kitsch and nostalgic – bringing an enjoyable breath of levity into an otherwise dark and gripping night. Katie Sfetkidis’ shadowy lighting is cinematic and a little vaudeville – and perfectly matches the Kubrik-esq colour palette of red, blue and gold.

In this vision of a queer Australia shoved into small places – trashed living rooms, fetid bedrooms, darkened porn shoots, steamy bathhouses, and prison cell toilet cubicles – the wedge of blue stage elegantly symbolises the way contemporary Australia’s social undercurrent bristles and pricks against a wash of conservatism, fear, and greed. No matter the national narrative, there is always turbulence bubbling away in the homes and minds of ordinary people.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Merciless Gods 

SBW Stables Theatre Sydney until November 25
Director Stephen Nicolazzo
Set & Costumer Designer Eugyeene Teh
Lighting Designer Katie Sfetkidis
Sound Designer Daniel Nixon
Dramaturg Chris Mead
Producer Jo Porter
Production Manager Bec Poulter
Stage Manager Brianna-Lee Wade
With Paul Blenheim, Brigid Gallacher, Sapidah Kian, Peter Paltos, Charles Purcell, Jennifer Vuletic

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sophie Gillfeather-Spetere is a writer, editor and digital content producer from Sydney. She's currently completing her Master of Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney and has a keen interest in heritage, history, film, crime and sexuality.

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