Malthouse Theatre online, tickets from October 30
Malthouse Theatre had planned, as an explosive finale to its 2020 season, to bring Christos Tsiolkas’ 1995 novel Loaded to the stage. Luckily, its COVID-induced evolution into an audio experience is a natural fit, quite possibly stronger for the visual constraint.
Director Stephen Nicolazzo and playwright Dan Giovannoni have a flair for adapting Tsiolkas’ work, notably a critically acclaimed adaptation of Tsiolkas’ short story collection Merciless Gods in 2017.
For Loaded, freed from the tyranny of image, they focus with absolute intensity on language, allowing performer Roy Joseph to maximise the incantatory power of the text.
The writing works brilliantly, partly due to the inter-generational collaboration between Tsiolkas and Giovannoni. Updating Ari’s story 25 years on is harder than it sounds. The original novel was published at the crest of wave of grunge lit in the mid-1990s. The odyssey of a queer Greek-Australian adolescent, disaffected and unemployed, diving into an underworld of drugs, clubs, parties and casual sexual encounters had novelty and subversive authenticity.
You can’t simply update the music and give the characters smartphones. Cultural attitudes to LGBTI people have changed drastically. If, as for Ari, "the contempt of the respectable" is part of the pleasure, Victoria in the '90s was the place to be but 2020 offers slimmer pickings.
Tsiolkas and Giovannoni uneasily elide the two time periods – references to Bolsonaro or FKA Twigs scrape against mentions of Walkmans and mix-tapes – to create a mythical Melbourne demimonde rather than a realistic contemporary world. That can lead to double-takes for audiences familiar with the queer milieu in both eras, but it also allows the listener to reflect critically on both, while opening a greater palette of vivid observations of Melbourne.
Consider Ari walking down Sydney Road in Brunswick, "weaving past pale scungy smelling hipster boys and hot muzzy chicks with sparkling hijabs and tight tops that show off their tits".
Melbourne comes alive in the mind – is almost a character – in these sequences. The cadence of Roy Joseph’s voice keeps you glued to the performance as surely as a no-interval theatre show. He commands an unhurried quality, resonant without compromising the amphetamine-fuelled action or the annihilating, slightly violent eroticism that underpins the work.
You're glad there’s no on-stage writhing, crotch-grabbing or … more indecorous behaviour … on display – not because they would offend bourgeois tastes, but because the writing and performance are so effective without them. This Loaded is more "in yer face", and poetically stronger, for respecting the listener’s imagination.