Above – Danny Ball. Photos – Tamarah Scott

It’s all good to be 19 and gay. Now. Right?

If you're ever privy to football players of a similar age plunging into a public swimming pool then tune in – those snippets of suburban male pack bravado might inform you otherwise.

Acclaimed Australian author Christos Tsiolkas speaks with humility and fondness of his 1995 first novel Loaded. Running alongside his self-depreciating commentary is an acknowledgement that he was also “incredibly lucky” when film maker Anna Kokkinos brought Ari, the novels enigmatic main character to the screen in her 1998 film, Head On.

A career launching novel undoubtably holds special significance for an author but it’s Ari who lives more fully than his writer might ever have imagined. Tsiolkas has been generous with his creation, trusting him first with Kokkinos and now with Director Stephen Nicolazzo and Writer Dan Giovannoni who had previously adapted his 2014 work Merciless Gods for the stage.

Loaded was originally programmed at Malthouse in 2020 but Covid had other ideas. Fortunately, endeavours were not wasted and support was funnelled into the development of an extraordinary audio version that at least, provided some work for the show’s creatives during that ghastly period. Two years on, Loaded, is at last in front of an audience.

The decision in this new adaptation to place Ari in a contemporary setting is an interesting one. With the hardcore risks of the 90s, maybe Ari didn’t make it to his 40s and so instead, we meet a 19-year-old Greek boy living in Melbourne right now. 

For those familiar with him, Ari is etched. A character so authentically drawn and distilled that even when reimagined and reawakened by others, his constant exists. Anna Kokkinos said that her film “opened up a dialogue between younger Greeks and their parents” but for others, the novel and subsequent film delivered, perhaps unexpectantly, an iconic character with whom they could identify. Ari’s rage, ethnicity, exploits, promiscuity, and sexuality spoke to a time.

So, what of Ari now? Should he have remained a first-generation immigrant boy riling against identity in the 90s? Has enough changed? Has too much changed? The answer resides in the original material. Ari is both central character and narrator in Loaded and a brush over the novel reveals just how much of the text has been lifted and adapted for this stage production. These are the words of one of our finest writers, they’re piercing and they’re painful; they hold up and they stick. Sure, the referencing is new, Ari streams his soundtrack now, the faces on bedroom walls are different and drugs are faster to order. Culturally? Do 19-year-old Greek boys still feel Greek? Are they still half lifes with one foot in two places? Still ‘wogs’? This is second generation Ari, existing on the periphery of everything and everywhere and not just his ancestry. Surely the weight is lighter though, after all the heavy lifting of Papou and Yiayia?

Maybe we should forget that this Ari is the dilution of immigrants and his stuff is just the stuff of any other kid growing up in a big city? Maybe Ari is the newly arrived African boy, a first-generation Middle Eastern boy or maybe he's just any boy on his knees in a back-alley conscious of his worth but wondering with every slam to the back of his throat if this is his only worth?

It’s all this. It’s Loaded!

Alex Dimitriades in Head On was perfect casting. He made Ari exactly what he needed to be, angry, desirable, lascivious – “the one hundred percent genuine wog fuck” and Danny Ball as Ari in this adaptation is utter precision. 

Christos Tsiolkas and Dan Giovannoni as co-adaptors have masterfully sketched an enormous range for Ari and Stephen Nicolazzo has directed an incredible actor to deliver a powerful performance of gritty sexually charged hedonism and drug induced shame. In narration and confession, Danny Ball charismatically shapeshifts between reflection and real time, explaining who he is one moment and showing us in the next. Never off stage, this extraordinary actor astounds with stillness, commitment and dance for a relentless, fearless and intricately detailed 95-minutes.

We’ll never know how this production may have differed had it been realised as originally planned 2 years ago but the additional time and experience of creating the audio recording has surely yielded benefit for all in this exceptionally creative team. Composer & sound designer Daniel Nixon backs Ari’s odyssey with streetscape subtlety and haunting combinations of traditional Greek, contemporary and retro pop. Lighting designer Katie Sfetkidis works seamlessly with set and costume designer Nathan Burmeister to fulfil the demands of rapid fire location and mood. Burmeister’s stark and circular rotating set evokes dance and tradition and its back wall transformation in the productions closing stages is as powerful in its symbolism as it is in being actual for Ari.

Loaded is social commentary, a vernacular, Trainspotting for Melbourne. The mess and menace of being lost while simultaneously knowing your currency and cachet. Disappointing and disappointed. Ari's world feels bleak but our optimism is in knowing he’s smarter than his associates. Loaded on stage is intimate, seductive, and confronting and just like the heightened senses Ari speaks of – this exceptional production is going to stay with you.

Event details

Malthouse Theatre presents
adapted by Christos Tsiolkas & Dan Giovannoni | based on the novel by Christos Tsiolkas

Director Stephen Nicolazzo

Venue: Beckett Theatre | Malthouse Theatre, 113 Sturt Street Southbank VIC
Dates: 5 May – 3 June 2023
Bookings: www.malthousetheatre.com.au

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