Straight from a sold out Sydney season, Dan Giovannoni’s Green Room Award winning adaptation of Merciless Gods will be opening in February as part of Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival. The two hour show is a brutally beautiful examination of queer immigrant experiences in Australia, based on the work of acclaimed Australian Author Christos Tsiolkas (The Slap, Barracuda).
Entrusting the first ever stage adaptation of the novel to both Little Ones Theatre, an award winning queer-indie theatre company, and Helpmann and Green Room Award winning playwright Dan Giovannoni, the initial Melbourne run (and subsequent Sydney season) was a clear indicator that the show connects with everyone on a deep level and is an absolute triumph for the creatives, production team, and Tsiolkas himself. Of the stage production, Tsiolkas said “I released Merciless Gods because I was confident these stories said what I wanted to say, or created the mood I wanted to convey, or made sense of an experience. But through the theatre process it’s almost like that multiplies. Just the wildness of Stephen’s ideas [for the adaptation] were really enthralling to me.”
I managed to have a quick chat with director and co-founder of Little Ones Theatre, Stephen Nicolazzo, about why a show about the ‘outsiders’ is resonating with so many in a country full of racial intolerance and bigotry.
How did the idea for a stage adaptation of the novel start?
The whole project started when I was listening to the radio with my partner. Christos was being interviewed about the book (Merciless Gods) and one of the stories in the collection is called ‘Petals.’ He was talking about how connected it was to Jean Genet, who is someone I adore and a lot of my work has been influenced by, and my partner turned to me and said “you should work with Christos Tsiolkas.” And I thought there was no f*cking way that was possible, this incredibly successful internationally best-selling author and me. But I made some calls, we met up, had drinks, chatted about everything and then the project began. Christos was in rehearsals, it wasn’t like we just decided to adapt the work, he was quite involved.
Christos’ work is often known for being confronting and sometimes uncomfortable, touching on strong themes like racism and discrimination. How have you translated this to the stage?
I think that there is a level of discomfort. I watch the show, having made it, thinking that I can completely relate to the characters as much as they are transgressive and brutal. There’s such raw tenderness and humanity to Christos’ work. Sometimes that ‘shock factor’ can overpower how beautiful the work is, so we wanted to maintain that balance. Making it all nice… It’s not Australia – it’s not pleasant walking down the street here as a person of colour or queer person, it doesn’t feel safe. So the work should reflect that. I think [the play] is a great cross-section of voices that I have never seen on stage before. I think it’s one of these works that means a lot to the people who made it, there’s so much love and trust and complete abandon that it does provide you with a portrait of multicultural Australia, not one that’s monocultural. Many many cultures can intersect together and how that can be problematic or harmonious. There is an inherent racism that even comes from some of the cultures that come to the country, every culture has their own racism, but Australia likes to pretend that it isn’t. We can pretend all we like that there’s a multicultural melting pot in this city, but there isn’t.
The stories in the novel are set some time ago – what are you doing to bring these to a more contemporary point?
The show premiered in 2017 and we had worked on it for 3 years prior to that. So in terms of it being contemporary, for us it was about presenting voices that wouldn’t be seen on stage. Even though there is a level of progression and diversity starting to appear on our stages, we didn’t feel like the particular voice of these short stories was something included in that. At the end of the day, it’s a period piece in some ways, a lot of it is set in the 80s and 90s and has that feel to them. But what’s strikingly contemporary is that a lot of of the content is stuff we aren’t really talking about as Australians.
As the show is part of the Midsumma festival, how are you addressing queer themes in the text?
In terms of Christos’ work and the legacy he has bequeathed to young, Australian, ethnic and queer artists, the show is a real celebration on his work and the stories that he’s written that really represent the queer experience, particularly in Melbourne and those of migrant families that are Queer. I also think in terms of queerness the work goes beyond representing homosexual experience, because it’s about presenting people who are ‘othered,’ kind of going back to the seed of what the word ‘queer’ means, the non-conforming non-normative. Little Ones Theatre as a company is a group of people who come from extremely different cultural backgrounds, sexual identities and age groups. There are lots of themes of the work that aren’t all in english. It’s a really diverse group of people who make it. We’re maintaining a truth to the voice, that we want to be heard.
What do you think is the most important message in the play?
No matter how much you perceive someone to be different, or on the outskirts of society, they are just as bold and interesting and important a voice as yours. It’s so important that there is utter tenderness in the brutal things we do. We can’t judge each other for that either. In this show, the title says it all… they are merciless gods on this earth. They’re human but they’re incredibly flawed.
Arts Centre Melbourne presents a Little Ones Theatre Production
Merciless Gods 6 – 10 February 2019
Warnings: Nudity, sex scenes, violence, coarse language, smoke, haze, smoking on stage Age Recommendation: 18+
Book at artscentremelbourne.com.au or by calling the Box Office on 1300 182 183