Review: Merciless Gods (Little Ones Theatre)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Nov 1 – 25, 2017
Playwright: Dan Giovannoni (based on the book by Christos Tsiolkas)
Director: Stephen Nicolazzo
Cast: Paul Blenheim, Brigid Gallacher, Sapidah Kian, Peter Paltos, Charles Purcell, Jennifer Vuletic
Image by Sarah Walker

Theatre review
Art can reshape lives. It provides new perspectives and an accompanying freedom, so that we are able to imagine a way of being that is better, than what had been available before. Christos Tsiolkas’ books might have a penchant for all things gloomy, but their refusal to adhere to dominant myths of our culture, helps us define an Australia that is more authentic, and certainly more inclusive, than paradigms that persist in spite of their diminishing relevance. We all want to belong, it is only human to wish for acceptance.

In Merciless Gods, eight short plays, adapted by Don Giovannoni from Tsiolkas’ book of the same name, explore the bleaker recesses of our psyche, paying particular focus to universal concepts of family, violence and sex. The writing is lyrical, faithful to Tsiolkas’ own renowned style, though dialogue can sometimes sound stilted through its translation of forms.

Operatically evocative, the work involves huge emotions and flamboyantly devised contexts. Six powerful performers are called upon to manufacture a rhapsodic sense of theatricality, in the absence of more extravagant manoeuvres by director Stephen Nicolazzo, who approaches the show with a misplaced and redundant restraint. Merciless Gods contains a spirit that feels boundless, and very wild, yet the staging is adamant in its preference for abstinence, and presumably, good taste.

Actor Jennifer Vuletic is unforgettable in two of the stories, converting the literary into intimate moments thrilling and visceral, through her sensational portrayals of contrasting parental types. We meet Dan the benevolent father, just as his light dims into the unknown thereafter, and we meet the phenomenal Lisbeth, an evil mother whose destructive darkness, threatens to outlive us all.

There is no good, without the bad. In Merciless Gods, we encounter them both, with little judgement, only an acceptance of their inevitability. The exotic creatures resist our moralising, and reveal to us instead, with brutal honesty, the unrelenting imperfections of our humanity. Rendered immediately recognisable, our ugliness demands to be owned, but what happens after the curtains fall, is that eternal battle between hope and hopelessness, with neither emerging the decisive victor.

www.littleonestheatre.com.au

5 Questions with Paul Blenheim and Jennifer Vuletic

Paul Blenheim

Jennifer Vuletic: Had you read Merciless Gods or much else of Christos Tsiolkas’ work prior to becoming involved in the stage production of Merciless Gods? 
Paul Blenheim: Yes, I’m a big fan of Christos Tsiolkas and Tina Arena. When Stephen asked me to develop Merciless Gods, I was like, ‘where do i sign?’ and he was like, ‘just here on the dotted line like every other contract, you idiot’. And I was like, ‘ok, calm down sister’ and then we had some chardonnay and celebrated with $7 worth of chips and some meats. 

Did you bring to bear any of your own experiences of growing up as an ethnic queer kid in Melbourne to the rehearsal process?
No. I am part Italian but I grew up on the central coast and i may have been forced to do a bucket bong in a sand dune in the 90s but I’ve never chopped limbs off or been made to jerk-off a fat pimp on ecstasy so I’ve had to go and be imaginative. 

How does Merciless Gods sit within the context of other Little Ones Theatre productions that you’ve performed in? 
It’s similar to other Little Ones productions in that I take my clothes off and kiss men that are four times the size of me but, other than that, I’d say this is new territory in terms of content and style. It’s still an event. It still throws a plate of asparagus at the wall of heteronormativity in similar fashion to that plate throw in American Beauty. It’s still beautiful in design but it has a quietness or stillness to it that gives room for the text to grip your heart, rip it out, give it a lick like it’s a well-cooked piece of kangaroo from the (insert whatever pub in Sydney needs a boost) and then put it back in and revive it. It’s my favourite. My drama teacher once told me that I was the Annette Bening of the Central Coast. Ok, she didn’t. 

Little Ones Theatre have been described by The Age’s Cameron Woodhead as ‘a leading light on Melbourne’s indie scene’. How do you think Sydney audiences will respond to the company’s work, and this production in particular? 
Look, I’m happy for the company to take the credit for that one even though Cameron told me he was talking specifically about me in the Little Ones production of Nine back in 2002. No, Little Ones have been putting on some spectacular shows in Melbourne but I think Merciless Gods is the perfect show for them to bring to Sydney. It has Jennifer Vuletic in it. Whenever someone says Jennifer Vuletic and Christos Tsiolkas in the same sentence, you get on the Griffin website and pre-book your tickets to the Berlin Helpmanns. 

You’ve also worked with the likes of Hayloft Project, Sisters Grimm, Elbow Room and Dirty Pretty Theatre – is it an exciting time to be working in independent theatre?
It’s always exciting. I mean, it’d be more exciting if I was married to someone who owned a brewery or an airline. But this year has been the best year in a while for theatre in Melbourne and every time i fly back to Sydney on Ansett there is another incredible theatre company starting up that has to close the bar by the second interval (is Gladys invited to opening?) or new writers smashing it out of the ballpark. And the standard of acting in both cities never fails to blow me away. I can’t wait to bring this baby home via the West Connex. I’m so excited i could pee myself. Does Alan Joyce read this? Is Tanya Plibersek coming? Who the fuck is on the guest list? OMG have we invited Clover? I’ll trade you all of St Kilda for Clover Moore. 

Jennifer Vuletic

Paul Blenheim: What’s your favourite story in Merciless Gods and why?  
Jennifer Vuletic: Pauly, YOU’RE my favourite story in Merciless Gods – I find you endlessly hypnotic, quixotic, charming, enigmatic and compelling. In fact, why aren’t we doing the whole show about you, Annette? Nude of course, cos that’s how you roll. In fact, that’s how several of us roll in this show, nude or semi-nude. The entire show is revelatory – a peeling away of onion-skin layers, revealing not so much the onion, but the experience of what it is to be pungently, rawly, diced, sliced and julienned by the brutal sous chef that is life… OK, I think I’ve exhausted the vegetable metaphor, so to the question again… favourite story, to be in? “Hair Of The Dog”, as it’s so deliciously horrific to wrestle to the death with you and  the divine Brigid Gallacher like some kind of demented panther. To watch? Merciless Gods – civilised sociopaths being awfully beautifully awful to each other – a crazed car accident.  

You’ve done it all and your resume is ridiculous. Big musical theatre stage or small intimate drama stage? Discuss.
Dahhhhhhhling the frocks! the chory! the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the… well, you get the drift. I love musicals, because everyone works so fkn hard for joy. To bring joy, sheer joy. But small intimate drama? Nothing to touch it for electricity, for the smell of fear, for nakedness (see above) of both flesh and soul.

How the hell did Nicolazzo convince you to come back to share the stage with the likes of me? (Or what drew you to the material/the company?)
He promised me vast sums of cash, tickets to the Palme D’or and an instant smash hit. Well, one out of three ain’t bad… I met Nicolazzo and fell immediately in love. He’s the best thing to hit Australian theatre in decades. Maybe ever. So we bonded over that quintessential Italian experience Brunettis, and I’ve been grovelling at his feet on the rehearsal floor ever since. And then there’s that Christos guy – he’s a beautiful, big-hearted bruin of a writer-person and I have loved watching the mutual regard and generosity and sheer artistry spiralling up out of the Dan Giovannoni/Christos Tsiolkas collaboration. The material is EVERYTHING. What actor wouldn’t leap at the chance to inhale this heady stuff? To play a grieving Italian mother, a vicious alcoholic German writer and a dying man? And then there’s this divine cast – Brigid Gallacher, Sapidah Kian, Charles Purcell, Peter Paltos and you, my love. Who’s that sixth cast member, I keep forgetting her name….. Add to that the genius of Katie Sfetkidis, Eugyeene Teh and Daniel Nixon and, well, I was a goner. They had me at “Hello, and would you consider wearing yellow socks?”

Proving that you’re capable of anything because you’re actually from heaven, you’re in the process of becoming an International Relations superstar. Following on from my suggestion that you play Norma Desmond as soon as possible, I’d like to know whether you would you prefer to play her or Ban Ki Moon? As in, Broadway or the UN? It’s crunch time.  
You are one funny bastard, Blenheim. You’ve got me there… Norma or Ban Ki Moon (now of course superseded by Antonio Guterres, but I kinda wish Helen Clark had been successful cos I would’ve LOVED to have played her:  “I’m riddy for my closeup Muster De Mulle”)… oh, I don’t know! The more I interrogate the vagaries and vicissitudes of International Relations, the slings and arrows of outrageous sanctions, and the notion that the leader of the free world is a giant infant with garden mulch for hair, I don’t know which way things are gonna go… hang on, hang on, that’s it – I play Norma AS Ban Ki Moon! Brilliant. Solved.

To be on stage with you is the best. I get genuinely terrified because it feels like I’m looking into the eyes of a completely different person but I feel like I don’t need to do anything except listen… hang on, sorry, this isn’t a question, it’s just me being in love with you. Um. Do you have any ideas of two-hander plays that you and I could do next year maybe? You know, just two emerging artists putting on a show? Dinner and a show, preferably. If you don’t have an answer for that, what was the best piece of advice you were ever given in the theatre? 
You’ll really say anything for a free dinner, won’t cha? OK, I confess – I am a different person. When I’m with you. Something comes over me. It could be hives. Pollen allergy. Gluten intolerance. But, yes, I do feel myself transmogrifying in your presence. I welcome the chance to emerge with you Pauly. From something warm, silken and preferably knitted. Two-handers? why stop there, let’s do four-handers! Six-handers! Throw in a couple of feet! Best piece of advice? Never act with animals (too late) children (too late) or Paul Blenheim (too soon?) Truly, I adore you.

Paul Blenheim and Jennifer Vuletic star in Christos Tsiolkas’ Merciless Gods by Little Ones Theatre, part of the Griffin Independent season.
Dates: 1 – 25 November, 2017
Venue: SBW Stables Theatre
images by Sarah Walker