The opening scene of Belvoir’s latest production Mortido has Colin Friels standing centre stage in a pool of light. He relates a story that drops the audience straight into the belly of this play. It is a legend from the barrios of Mexico about the depravity of the cocaine trade.
The action moves to Sydney – Surry Hills public housing, Eastern Suburbs glamour pad, Penrith dogbox - then Berlin nightclub and remote Bolivian valley. This is part crime thriller, part exposé of a global drug supply chain that features pleasured wealth at one end and exploited poverty at the other.
Angela Betzien’s script is funny, disturbing and richly imagined. Director Leticia Cáceres says in her notes that she hopes seeing this play will be a ‘workout for the brain’. She and her team have delivered a production that is gripping from beginning to end.
Six actors work in multiple roles. The performance from Colin Friels is a tour de force. He plays cynical Surry Hills cop Grubbe, bitter ex-con Christos and - his most unsettling character - demented drug lord Barbie.
Tom Conroy is beautiful as Jimmy, the ex-junkie battling to achieve an unattainable dream. His skin is pierced and written upon in ink and blood, preyed upon by those who want something from him – deliveries, information, submission.
Jimmy’s sister Scarlet, the primary role played by Louisa Mignone, and her husband Monte, played by Renato Musolino, are the drug dealing wannabe power couple. They play their characters with nuance without diminishing the buffoonery of their social climbing ways. David Valencia plays El Gallito, impressive as the hypersexual being.
At times, the performance from Toby Challenor as both Oliver and Alvaro, Woollahra princeling and Bolivian street kid respectively, had my heart in my mouth. Partly this reaction was driven by the disturbing idea that someone so young was holding his own in a play of such visceral emotion.
I am assured that child protection principles are rigorously applied in this production. Allow yourself to be impressed with the performance by Challenor (sharing the role with Otis Jai Dhanji). He delivers the heart of this play – the child barely protected from the lacerating cruelties of the adult world beyond his mother’s embrace. Or else orphaned and utterly exposed – the vessel of men who are indifferent to his wellbeing.
The technical direction of the show is seamless. The design is pared back and subtly textured. As the show progresses, surfaces get stripped away and daubed with swirls of lipstick and blood.
This is a riveting portrayal of people caught between a death wish and a dangerous impulse to tenderness that spiral one around the other. It is a wild ride.
Mortido is running at Belvoir St. Theatre until December 17. Production photos by Brett Boardman.