By Darby Turnbull
There’s something in Stephen Nicolazzo’s production of Loaded, adapted from Christos Tsiolakas’ novel that puts me in mind of a diorama in a museum. It’s not just Nathan Burmeister’s attractive set with its curved frames and cunning revolved stage; Nicolazzo’s work often prioritizes bold visual images that frequently provide a camp aesthete’s insight into the text; this one especially feels particularly exhibitionistic. It shows 24 hours in the life of Ari a self-described ‘wog faggot’ who has sneering disdain for labels and the perceived mendacity of the community and individuals around him. Tsiolakas’ and co-adaptor Dan Giovannoni (who did a very fine adaption of Tsiolakas’ Merciless Gods a few years ago) take Ari through an emotional odyssey through Melbourne’s inner and outer suburbs through clubs and house parties with plenty of drugs, petty violence and sex. Tsiolakas’ work is laden with body fluid imagery; the characters are indispensable from their blood, piss, semen, shit and breast milk, for better or worse his prose evokes a perverse connection between the reader and his character’s basest selves. This production, especially the Nicolazzo’s vision for the adaption still alludes to the visceral nature of the work but going back to the diorama analogy it feels like an opportunity to get a titillating peek into a lifestyle that the audience may not have much insight into. There are only so many descriptions of an aggressive self-loathing blowjob before it becomes tedious.
Danny Ball’s solo performance is very impressive and will undoubtedly be widely admired; Ari is a particularly odious creation; bratty, nihilistic and self-destructive who’s getting by on his looks and occasional ability to charm and Ball doesn’t waste time trying to make him likable. Tsiolakas and Giovannoni’s writing is laden with urban poetry which Ball proclaims in a sometimes breathy, oratory style but it’s his laden disillusioned rage that provides the meat of his performance. There are several brief insights into the roots of Ari’s anger, such as a brief rant about the aging immigrants of Melbourne’s northern suburbs and disgust at the faux progressive posturing of the uni students he encounters. It’s moments like this that Ball really lets rip before reverting back to Ari’s dismissive attitude. Thankfully there are many diversions where Ball gets to show off his gift for multiple characterisations as he fills out Ari’s world; one of the strongest being Tula, a drag queen with a canny read on what makes Ari tick. There were moments when I wished the show centred Tula more given how many more dimensions she seems to contain in opposition to Ari’s petulant solipsism. Ball is a lithe, graceful mover and there are some lovely contrasts between the repressed machismo as Ari and Tula’s considered fluidity.
There are many opportunities to revel in his physical beauty, which is put on display on multiple occasions, though I had cause to wonder why. Ari does use his looks to his advantage but he’s not the type to show much pride in his physical appearance which is in opposition to Ball’s Adonis like muscularity which we’re frequently invited to gaze on and I’m struggling to see why. For example, I spent an inordinate amount of time fixating on the choice to dress him in pristine, white Calvin Klein underwear when Ari would probably scoff at designer labels; I did an impromptu poll of friends and we agreed he’d wear Bonds or Kmart Alpha. I’d hoped for a little insight into the effects of Ari’s lifestyle which mostly consists of drug use, reckless sex and hard partying; I’m not looking for tedious moralizing, but the staging often feels like prioritizing the appreciation of a beautiful man rather than the toll of the characters lack of hope or drive.
Daniel Nixon’s sound design and compositions provide a gorgeous soundscape that compliments Balls performance though sometimes quite sedate given Ari’s love of high pulse music though there’s some lovely bouzouki underscoring.
Katie Sfetkidis’ lighting is absolute stunning, evoking the accidental beauty in the seediest of atmospheres. She really evokes for example the ways that Peel nightclub can be hypnotic, sleazy, dirty but elating; her lighting compositions beautifully corroborate Burmesiter’s set with rust tones, water and grates.
Christos Tsioklas makes it very clear that the Ari of the play is a very different iteration than the Ari of the novel and is quite harsh on his earlier prose, which complemented the unformed nature of the character quite profoundly. Taking him from 90’s Melbourne to the present day is mostly seamless, there’s just as much to be disgusted by now but it does dilute its power. Ari’s relentless misanthropy seems almost quaint now given how it’s gone in and out of fashion. It didn’t escape my notice that people and suburbs he has his most caustic ire for are the Malthouse audiences themselves who take the whole thing in with good natured indulgence.
The season of Loaded is sold out and receiving rapturous audience responses. Like Looking for Alibrandi last season this is an insightful and popular adaption of a classic Australian text which I hope the mainstage will continue to explore.