Theatre

The long-awaited stage adaptation of Loaded at the Malthouse Theatre updates Ari’s story for a new audience, while drawing fresh tension from anachronism. By Jinghua Qian.

Malthouse Theatre's Loaded

A performer shirtless and on his knees under the spotlight.
Danny Ball plays Ari in the Malthouse Theatre’s production of Loaded.
Credit: TS Publicity / Tamarah Scott

Like any remake, Loaded faces the challenge of how to honour its origins while reigniting its sense of urgency. Christos Tsiolkas’s debut novel felt hot and hungry when it was published in 1995. Over the course of 24 hours, we see Ari – 19, Greek, gay and unemployed – devour everything in reach while pulsing with syncopated shame and desire. His angst steamed off the page and lodged in the sense-memory of generations of migrant queers, who recognised something true in his compulsive lying and his refusal to belong.

Ari’s teenage nihilism feels both eternal and firmly rooted in the Melbourne of the mid-’90s. Particularly because the action takes place over a single day, the novel serves as an incendiary time capsule.

Ari’s character is inextricable from his position as a second-generation Greek Australian, the son of postwar migrants who remain emotionally and politically connected to their homeland. Shifting the setting to the present day doesn’t weaken the narrative, but it does complicate it.

This stage adaptation, co-authored by Tsiolkas and Dan Giovannoni, is the fourth major iteration of Ari’s story. A 1998 film version starring Alex Dimitriades and Paul Capsis followed the novel, and in 2020, when Covid forced the postponement of the stage production that was meant to mark the novel’s 25th anniversary, the Malthouse released an audio play starring Roy Joseph. This version retains largely the same text as in the audio play, and most of the same creative team, who have been in place since before the pandemic, but with Danny Ball replacing Joseph as the solo performer.

Much has changed in the years since Loaded was published. In 1995, homosexuality was still criminalised in Tasmania and Ari’s hook-ups would have been illegal in Western Australia, where the age of consent for sex between men was 21 until 2002, when it was dropped to 16 to match the age for heterosexual sex. The implication that gay sex – and especially bottoming – was inherently degrading was evident in law as well as cultural discourse: the closet was more crowded and had a heavier door.

Race, too, has been reconstructed, if less than we would like. Whiteness has come into sharper focus, swallowing some groups and spitting out others. What it means to be Greek Australian has consequently shifted.  The updated script nods to the churning waters in which Ari swims – he’s not white when he’s baiting middle-class skips like his brother’s emphatically northside girlfriend, Jana, but he also sneers at his friend Betty’s over-identification with Black and desi idols. He has a broad contempt for identity politics and a pugilistic approach to class that’s uncoupled from an ethic of collectivism. He’s mostly defined by what he’s not: not a worker, not a student, not an artist, not giving a shit.

What holds everything together in this production is Danny Ball’s magnetic solo performance, which is a joy to watch in its physicality, charisma and control. As Ari, he climbs wild arpeggios of fury and yearning, then somersaults into sensual abandon when his favourite song comes on (every other song is his favourite). Stephen Nicolazzo’s direction is meticulous and tightly focused, so while Ari appears impatient, adrift and ablaze, not one moment on stage goes to waste. The sex scenes are as sticky as you can get without closing down the venue.

Katie Sfetkidis’s lighting is subtle and moving, while Daniel Nixon’s sound design, muscular in the audio play, sounds a little too neat in person. Nathan Burmeister’s set, which has brightly coloured plastic strip blinds pulling away to reveal a series of tiled arches and a revolving stage, is lovely and wry, suggestive of ’90s shopfronts, Greek architecture and perhaps Ari’s brittle veneer. The hemispherical shape gestures towards a recurring motif of Ari as Persephone, relishing the pleasures of the underworld on the DL while the world is shrouded in darkness, but covering his tracks once the sun comes up. But despite clever design, the set is peripheral to the action and does little to establish time and place within the story. The revolving aspect, in particular, seems like an afterthought. Altogether, the production is stylish without giving Ball much to play off – more a picture frame than a scaffold. In some ways that makes his sustained 95-minute performance all the more impressive.

The adaptation harbours a few anachronisms that I often see in coming-of-age stories by Gen X and Millennial writers that have been transplanted to a contemporary setting. The young characters have been reconfigured but their parents seem jellied in time, so Ari and his peers read like Gen Z children of Boomers. These little peeves bother me less here than they did in the audio version, thanks to a few judicious cuts in the script, Ball’s anchoring performance and the power of live theatre to constitute its own reality. It doesn’t really matter if the external references are imprecise because within the theatre walls, the world is coherent and expressive.

At its best, the roiling time scape feels layered rather than confused, rich rather than contradictory. Just as Ari carries the voices of a whole ensemble of characters, he also carries different versions of himself. The Ari of 1995 is in dialogue with the Ari of today and, through them, you glimpse infinite time lines and possibilities: what Greekness was then, what it is now, what it was becoming, how it is misremembered. There are whispers of the ancient past and deep future and all the forks in the road.

Ari’s casual assertion that he’s a wog, not white, scorns millennia of Western empires claiming Greek epistemology as an intellectual forebear while systemically deorientalising it. This feels particularly salient for how homoeroticism in Greek antiquity is absorbed into the lineage of anglophone gay culture today. That troubled relationship to history and lineage is also a recurring trope in migrant narratives, as the point of origin recedes into a romantic homeland fading into the horizon, or becomes a risk and a burden, a chorus of voices clamouring for tribute. Or a third thing: a ship with new parts but the same name.

It feels as though the play itself embodies a second-generation identity crisis in how it approaches adaptation: how can a transplant respect its roots while staying nimble in a new time and place? By the end of the play, Ari’s nihilism seems less reckless and more realist, even Zen. He might be forever running – running to escape history – but he makes the most of every minute on this earth and cares more than he dares to admit.

“My epitaph will read he slept, he ate, he fucked…” he says. On the surface, it’s a brash, juvenile sentiment. Let it steep a second longer and it might become a statement of humility and vulnerability.

Christos Tsiolkas is The Saturday Paper’s film reviewer.

Loaded plays at Malthouse Theatre until June 3.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 27, 2023 as "Hidden pleasures".

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