A quarter-century has passed since Christos Tsiolkas published his blazing debut novel, Loaded, in 1995. I first devoured it in the mid-2000s and it seemed to shoot through my veins. Like the protagonist Ari, I was a queer teenager living in Richmond, although by then the Walkman that he carried everywhere had already started to give way to MP3 players. But everything else held true for my own adolescence: shame matched with desire, the disconnect between first-generation migrants and their children, the impossible thrill of music. Cocksure bravado papering a deep fear. Yearning and burning.
And there was Melbourne, vivid and gritty in that peculiarly ’90s way. In one scene Ari walks home via Lennox Street – my street – and I learnt just how uncomfortably close a novel could get. It could come up to your window and peer inside.
Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre initially planned to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Loaded with its stage premiere, adapted by Tsiolkas and playwright Dan Giovannoni, but after Covid-19 the production was reimagined as an audio play. In four acts over 104 minutes, our ears follow Ari – played by Roy Joseph – on his heady, drug-fuelled 24-hour romp through Melbourne’s east, north, south and west.
The adaptation moves the story to the present day, or at least to the recent past: there are smartphones and vegan hipster housemates, new music and new drugs, but no lockdown or curfew or five-kilometre radius. The update feels a touch superficial: this Ari was born in the new millennium – after Loaded; after Ana Kokkinos’s 1998 film adaptation, Head On – but he remains a product of the ’90s. There are moments when it feels as though the writers name-check a series of pop culture references in lieu of committing to either time line. M.I.A. is one of many musicians cited and at times the script reminded me of her lyrics in songs such as “Matangi” – a roll call fronting as a manifesto. Ari doesn’t seem like someone who grew up with Tsiolkas being one of Australia’s pre-eminent writers.
Some parts really come alive, especially the end of the “north” section, when Ari relays his personal commandments, and the beginning of the “south” part, a slow revelation of lust, tenderness and frustration. Joseph delivers an astute and dynamic performance under Stephen Nicolazzo’s direction, while Daniel Nixon’s composition brings Ari’s internal and external soundtrack to life. Music is the engine of Ari’s story, its rhythms tracing the contours of his moods as he laughs, dances, runs and rages, and here Nixon’s sound design does a lot of the heavy lifting in creating a sense of place and movement.
But despite the skill evident in this work, I can’t help feeling that something crucial is missing. This production feels like an audiobook: it’s an asynchronous sonic experience with a single narrator that you can enjoy at your convenience. There’s nothing wrong with that, and some audiences may even prefer it – but it’s not what I want from theatre.
The thing is, it’s true what we say about the magic of theatre. There’s no replicating a room’s held breath, the collective anticipation, the taut, shared moment. The curtain and the darkness.
Whether you’re sitting in plush raked rows or perched awkwardly on milk crates or finding your way through a promenade work, theatre is a multisensory experience that’s both participatory and passive. Here, you’re left to curate your own environment in isolation. Where a book is malleable to your imagination, and live theatre commands your immediate, embodied attention in a temporary community, this audio format falls into an uncomfortable middle space that’s neither simultaneous nor self-paced, neither open nor closed.
That’s more a critique of this artform than of the work. But for anyone who hasn’t encountered this story in any of its previous incarnations, the ensemble of characters here can be a touch hard to follow, given Ari’s breakneck pace. Johnny (played memorably by Paul Capsis in the film) still stands out, but some of the others blur together. Those who’ve enjoyed previous iterations of Loaded may find that this isn’t the staging we’ve been waiting for.
Disclosure: Christos Tsiolkas is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 7, 2020 as "Missing a breath".
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