October 20, 2015

Confronting examination of death and drugs

by Angela Betzien
State Theatre Company of South Australia
and Belvoir, Sydney.
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre.
October 20. Tickets: $ 27 – $ 69.
Bookings : BASS 131246 or
Until October 31 .
Duration: 2 hours 20 minutes.
The Belvoir season opens in Sydney November 11.

“Freud reckoned love and hate, sex and death are twin impulses”, explains the philosophic Detective Grubbe, in Angela Betzien’s brand-new crime psychodrama. “Existence is an endless circle of life and death, life and death. But ultimately, the aim of all life is self-destruction. That’s Mortido, Jimmy.”

Betzien throws many ingredients into an ambitious narrative stew which begins with Mexican magic realism – the resurrection fable of a mother’s plot against a drug cartel to avenge the death of her son – and shifts to the mean streets and swank houses of Sydney where drug dealer Monte is luring his brother-in-law, the hapless ex-junkie Jimmy, into a bold plan to take over from the ruthless matriarch, La Madre. Needless to say, with the ambiguously named Detective Grubbe out to thwart their plan, the course of true crime never does run smooth.

Director Leticia Caceres has her hands full with a text loaded with exposition, wordy naturalistic dialogue and sometimes clunky, sometimes jokey, symbolism referencing cocks and cockfighting, Coca Cola and Krispy Kremes . The fury of the violence, and the shadow of death is personified by the strutting vice figure, El Gallito, and the sinister Nazi backstory involving the son of the Butcher of Lyon, Klaus Barbie, in Bolivia.

Designer Robert Cousins solves the problem of multiple locations with an unadorned black acting space with a mosaic of mirror tiles on one wall and Geoff Cobham’s forensic lighting rig above. The soundscape from The Sweats is a low roiling rumble, punctuated by explosive scene markers.

As Grubbe, Barbie, the luckless Christos and others, Colin Friels is at his excellent and versatile best and his scenes with Jimmy (played with admirable conviction by Tom Conroy) are some of Betzien’s most engaging. As Monte, the capable Renato Musolino, encumbered at times by lumpy dialogue, is persuasive as the bourgeois goodfella with his eyes on the prize. Louisa Mignone plays Scarlet, his social-climbing wife, and Calin Diamond is their son Oliver, doubling as the sadistically tortured Bolivian boy Alvaro. David Valencia’s El Gallito, is both rooster and Jimmy’s harbinger of death.

Mortido reminds us that destructive energy is the libido of death, whether it’s a needle in the arm or a plot to overthrow a drug cartel. But after Scarface, Underbelly, twenty years of Quentin Tarantino, six seasons of The Sopranos and five of The Wire, this play appears in a crowded market. Jimmy’s predicament is heart-rending and in this gutsy production, it is confronting. But it has also become a tired trope, and pitiful is a long way short of tragic.

Murray Bramwell

“Confronting examination of death and drugs”, The Australian, October 22, 2015, p.15.

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