Mexican waves: Belvoir & STCSA’s Mortido

Angela Betzien’s reputation as a writer of darkly furious plays which are as much social commentaries as they are impassioned calls to action makes her new play, Mortido, a welcome jolt of adrenaline in the tail-end of a year of theatre. Exploding upon Belvoir’s corner-stage after a critically successful season in Adelaide, Mortido is equal parts crime drama, revenge tragedy, morality play, and familial drama all in one thrilling evening.
Co-commissioned by Belvoir and Playwriting Australia, and presented here in a coproduction between Belvoir and State Theatre Company of South Australia, Mortido begins with a Mexican fable about death, life, and rebirth, and ricochets between past and the present, dreams and reality, across multiple countries and continents, while hunting down its elusive target. Amongst it all, its beating heart is the story of Jimmy, a small-time dealer in Sydney’s west, his medium-big-time distributor brother-in-law Monte, and their various run-ins with police detective Grubbe. Connecting all of them is cocaine, and an article from the Sydney Morning Herald in 2011 that inspired Betzien to ultimately write this play.

Directed by Betzien’s long-time collaborator Leticia Cáceres, Mortido is set upon a dark and atmospheric set (Robert Cousins) with moody chiaroscuro lighting (Geoff Cobham), and a furious score (THE SWEATS). Unfolding like a film, Mortido’s scenes intersect and overlap with a thrilling collision of timelines, with characters appearing in both the present and past in simultaneous moments. While Colin Friels’ Detective Grubbe is our introduction to the world of Mortido, it is Tom Conroy’s Jimmy who is our guide and point of empathy, and we watch as Jimmy is torn between wanting something more than he has, putting his brother-in-law behind bars, and hunting down La Madre, the big-fish at the top of the cocaine ring.
Named for the Freudian term for the death instinct (riffing on the analogy of ‘libido’), Betzien’s Mortido is an ambitious and gloriously intoxicating portrait of destruction in many guises. Peppered with phrases in German and Spanish, it is to Betzien and Cáceres’ credit that these phrases go untranslated for the audience; we can, by and large, work out their meaning from the context and their intonation, but we don’t need to explicitly know what they mean. Structurally, Betzien’s play reads like a screenplay, and works slightly better on the page than it does on stage. While the first half passes quite quickly, interval comes one or two beats too soon; it feels like there are one or two short scenes missing from its crescendo that would have propelled us towards its conclusion with an undeniable sense of dread and foreboding. In the second half, a tendency towards conveying more exposition means the action flows less quickly, but its conclusion – with Grubbe breaking out of the play’s largely realistic bounds to deliver the closing part of the fable – seems to jar; is Grubbe an omniscient figure, or part of the story’s fabric; is he larger than the story, or inextricably bound within in it, caught up in it all?  
Cáceres’ cast are strong, but are perhaps overshadowed by the marketing emphasis placed upon Friels, who isn’t really the main character at all. Tom Conroy’s Jimmy is skittish and charismatic, likeable even; Renato Musolino’s Monte is full of his own importance and wealth, knows how much he can pressure Jimmy to coerce him into helping him carry out his scheme; Louisa Mignone’s Scarlet is initially protective of her brother Jimmy, but as the play progresses, she chooses Monte’s financial security and the safety of wealth over familial ties, and leaves Jimmy to his fate. David Valencia’s El Gallito, the subject of the play’s opening fable, exudes duende and danger, and haunts the play like a ghost, a figment of our collective imaginations, until we’re not sure if we’re dreaming or totally conscious.  

While Mortido wouldn’t have been my first choice of play to conclude a theatre season with, it is no less a thrilling play, full of anger, passion, life (and death), and is unapologetic about its tone and somewhat bleak outlook. While grounded in Sydney, Mortido is ultimately about globalisation, humankind’s greed and desperate desire for something better than what we have, and “our killer desire for a bigger house,” preferably with water views, no matter what the price may be.

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