Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Mortido by Angela Betzien

Mortido by Angela Betzien.  Presented by Belvoir and State Theatre Company of South Australia, directed by Leticia Cáceres.  Set and Costume design – Robert Cousins; Lighting – Geoff Cobham; Composer – The Sweats; Sound design – Nate Edmondson; Movement – Scott Witt.  November 11 – December 17, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 14

Unfortunately, despite the author’s idea of a grand theme – I wonder, is the destructive drive of mortido in all of us?  Is it symbiotically linked with our drive for life, for self-preservation? – her play as staged in this joint production by the SA State Theatre and Belvoir is theatric rather than dramatic, simplistic rather than thematic.

The Currency Press blurb (you buy the whole script with the program for $13) reveals the problem.  “This is Betzien’s most ambitious play so far, and a brilliant portrait of the Emerald City: familiar, bizarre, glorious and mean.  A quintessential Sydney tale about crime, globalisation and the killer desire for a bigger house.”  My emphasis: it’s situational television, not the serious drama the blood and gore or the revelation of criminal behaviour pretends to be.

On stage, Detective Grubbe begins by telling a long Mexican story, the myth of El Gallito, the boy who comes back from the dead, to revenge his killing by drug-runners.  The central character is a Sydney school-dropout Jimmy, who is pressured by his brother-in-law Monte to carry out day-to-day cocaine importing work.  Monte is wealthy, living in Woollahra, married to Jimmy’s sister Scarlet.

In Act Two, the script reads:  EL GALLITO enters the bathroom.  He goes to the urinals.  JIMMY is hyper-aware of EL GALLITO’s presence, but MONTE ignores him.

I may be super-insensitive, but without my script in hand I took the appearance of this young man visiting the toilet apparently in a Sydney night-club to be no more than ordinary.  He stood beside Jimmy, facing the mirror.  JIMMY turns to look at him.  EL GALLITO leaves without looking at JIMMY.

This figure mysteriously appears, in Sydney, Germany or South America, only speaking Spanish, until Jimmy kills El Gallito.  Watching, I had no idea beyond a vague inkling that I was supposed to interpret this figure somehow – perhaps as a homosexual decoy in the business of drug dealing.  At the end, Grubbe completes the story he began four acts ago, about the death of La Madre, El Gallito’s mother.

On stage I thought I saw the anonymous Spanish-speaking man kill Jimmy, yet in the script I read They fall together.  EL GALLITO is dead.  Then I’m told: AT LA MADRE’S FUNERAL IN PUNCHBOWL, JIMMY listens as GRUBBE finishes the story.  Then JIMMY leaves the marigold flowers and is gone. GRUBBE remains.

Only by reading the script can I see what the author was trying to do: to turn a grubby cocaine importing business operating in Sydney suburbs into a story of mythical proportions.  This was why scenes were cued in by loud noises and flashes, perhaps of lightning.  That was why the blood and gore from the Spanish man’s box cutter was draped around Jimmy’s body as if in some kind of ceremony, and the Spanish man moved in the manner of a bull-fighter.  Perhaps.

I’m used to interpreting all kinds of theatrical imagery, but this one lost me.  There was no empathy for any of the characters, not even Jimmy.  Just a display of theatrics in a story that made almost no sense – without knowing at least who the anonymous Spanish speaking man was and what exactly was said.  And there were many more mysteries, about Oliver, Scarlet’s son, the German who seemed to be the mastermind (in Bolivia after WWII), Monte’s mother (the one buried at Punchbowl) and more.

Angela Betzien writes “Writing Mortido has been a thrilling adventure and I’m proud to say I’ve travelled to every location in the story: from the barrios of Mexico, to the hipster hub of Kreuzberg, from La Paz down El Camino de la Muerte to Coroico, and from a CBD nightclub to the pho-infused backstreets of Cabramatta....I’d like to thank everyone for joining me on this wild ride.”

Despite her enthusiasm, the experience for me was more confusion than wild. Leticia Cáceres’ Director’s Notes say “For me, making Mortido has been a process of distillation, of creating space for audiences to exercise their own imaginations.  Every step of the way we’ve asked ourselves: what elements do we really need to tell this tale?  To what extent can we trust the audience to listen, to feel, to know, to put the pieces of the puzzle together?”

I listened, I didn’t feel much, and I failed to put the pieces together.  Sigmund Freud’s idea of ‘mortido’ was always a bit weird, explained by Betzien as ‘the theory of the death drive, the instinct of all living things to return to an inanimate state’.  I wouldn’t put too much trust in that bit of imagination.

Tom Conroy as Jimmy, David Valencia as El Gallito
Photo by Brett Boardman