It’s not every day that the theatre audience has the chance to hear the voice of one of the most acute and poignant writers of our times translated from the page to the stage. And it is even rarer that this voice belongs to a Greek-Australian. This is the case with Christos Tsiolkas, one of the most acclaimed Australian writers of our times, who ruthlessly and fearlessly dissects Australian society, exposing things that the community often averts eyes from.
His ‘Merciless Gods’ collection of short stories is a perfect example of that, reflecting the different experiences of people who have migrant background mainly from the Mediterranean – stories that explore issues of cultural and sexual identity, stories set in migrant camps, gay saunas, pill-popping hipster dinner parties, porn sets, prison cells and so on.
The book was adapted to the stage by the Little Ones Theatre company, to great acclaim, and it is now coming back to one of Melbourne’s main venues, the Arts Centre. This staging is part of this year’s Midsumma Festival and comes as a confirmation of the company’s decision to turn the book into a play.
“A lot of stories are about people who are second or third generation migrants, something that is of interest to us,” says Katie Sfetkidis, who runs the Little Ones Theatre along with director Stephen Nicolazzo and designer Eugyeene Teh. “Our company is comprised by an Italian, a Malaysian and a Greek, interested in telling queer stories,” says Katie Sfetkidis.
Looking back at the ‘Merciless Gods’ original staging, in July 2017 at the Northcote Town Hall, she recalls a very positive reception. “We got really great feedback,” she remembers. “We had a quite mixed audience – we had people from the Northcote community and also our community, that is the queer and theatre community. It was really successful.”
It also received rave reviews, particularly regarding Jennifer Vuletic’s performance as a mother who realises that her late son was a gay porn actor.
Katie Sfetkidis was also praised for her “striking” lighting work that saw the staged “drenched in smoky light” in a “cinematic and a little vaudeville” way.
This is not the first time that the lighting director gains such acclaim.
For the avid theatregoer, her name is familiar, associated with some of the most interesting productions to have been presented in Melbourne and Sydney in the past few years.
For the average Melburnian, she was one of the contenders of the mayoral seat, in the recent elections that saw Sally Cap becoming Lord Mayor of the world’s most liveable city. Of course, as anyone following city politics knows, Sfetkidis did not win the election – nor did she (or anyone else) expect her to. For her, this campaign was “an opportunity to take the art world into politics.”
In December, she did the opposite, bringing her campaign into the art world, through an exhibition, featuring posters, photos from events and her video diary – all things reflecting her experience of running for office.
Now that all this is behind her, how does she assess her effor to bring Art to politics?
“What I’m talking about is being able to talk about issues in a way that is less following a political line,” she explains.
“I was able to be a real person in a way that other politicians aren’t.
“The thing that I really learnt from this experience is that if you put yourself out there that people are willing to listen to you and take you seriously,” she says. “These kind of actions are really important.”
“I see my art practice as being political,” she says. “The distinction between the two is kind of gray.”
There is one thing that is of concern to her, both as an artist and a citizen. “The main issue at the moment is how do we make people feel included,” she says. “How we empower people who feel that they don’t have a voice.There are conversations that are happening quite openly around diversity within the artistic community that are not necessarily happening in other places.”
This is why it is important to bring a play like ‘Merciless Gods’ to the most mainstream stage possible, the Arts Centre. “It will be interesting to see how these stories can translate to a wider audience,” she agrees.
In an era when the need for diversity in arts and culture is more pressing than ever, productions like this add to the dialogue.
“Ethnic background is definitely part of this debate,” she argues, describing how she draws on the experiences of her father, who was born in Australia and her grandfather who migrated in the ’30s. “My Greek background has definitely informed who I am,” she says. “When you have a Greek surname people identify you on some level as being Greek and that informs who I am, as does my engagement with my family and the young people within the Greek community.”
Speaking of community, would she consider running again for office?
“It is not out of the question,” she says. “But it is a big commitment on your life. It will depend on where I am in my life at the moment.”
- ‘Merciless Gods’ is being staged at Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre (100 St Kilda Road, Southbank) from 6 to 10 February. For further details and tickets, click here.