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Merciless Gods is bleak, tender and consistently brilliant
Based on Christos Tsiolkas' collection of short stories, Merciless Gods is sometimes bleak, sometimes tender and consistently brilliant. This is the first time Tsiolkas' work has been adapted for stage and Little Ones Theatre are the perfect candidates – writer Dan Giovannoni has distilled the essence of the text into two acts that delve into the depths of our psyche, with a uniquely Australian cadence and rhythm that echoes the author's work. On stage, Merciless Gods pulsates with a sense of brutality, as we see a suburban mum revile her son, or are given insight into the mind of a young man at a gay sauna for the first time.
Director Steven Nicolazzo allows this piece room to breathe – the subject matter is so relentless and tackles parts of ourselves so often left hidden, that it could become exhausting, but thanks to its quick pace and shifting tone, Nicolazzo prevents the audience from becoming fatigued. The ensemble cast is brilliant, transforming between every scene to become entirely new characters that are always fleshed out and compelling. Every movement is perfectly articulated, giving even the most mundane of actions a sense of intention and purpose. This is one of the elements that make Merciless Gods so absorbing – it is the everyday stretched beyond what we normally allow ourselves to see, as humans are made into the prey of the gods, or are fallen gods themselves. The order of scenes allowed the contrast between each moment, but at it occasionally felt like the emotional beats were out of order or difficult for the audience to navigate – the emotional pull of a scene in which a family says goodbye to their patriarch was enormous, and I found myself needing more time to digest it before launching into the next enthralling monologue.
One of the highlights of any production by Little Ones Theatre is its stylishness, and Merciless Gods is no exception. Eugyenne Teh's set is a long triangular wedge, slicing through the space like a shard of glass. With audiences on both sides, there is always a risk that some elements of the performance or text will be lost to one side, but the space was used in such a way that nothing ever felt like it was missing. It was beautifully complemented by Katie Sfetkidis' lighting design, the stage and lights revealing themselves in the final scene in a way that felt totally sublime.
Merciless Gods is a unique play that allows us the opportunity to see one of Australia's most exciting contemporary writers paired with one of our most exciting independent theatre companies. It's the kind of production that is not for the faint-hearted, but a wonderful exploration of the cruelties and kindnesses we show to one another. Merciless Gods is urgent, fierce and stylish, and it will stay with you long after you have left the theatre.