Locked and Loaded: Acclaimed Melbourne story finally hitting the stage

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Are gay men in Melbourne OK? If you’ve met the characters in the work of writers Paul Dalla Rosa or Ronnie Scott you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’re in some sort of crisis. These tragic queers, however, exist in a lineage that started with Ari, a 19-year-old, angry, unemployed, gay Greek boy who is the main character in Christos Tsiolkas’ incendiary debut novel, Loaded.

Christos Tsiolkas and Danny Ball outside the Peel Hotel in Collingwood.Credit: Wayne Taylor

Ari is the gay bad boy that started it all. After COVID thwarted plans to bring him to the stage in 2020, he’s finally getting to wreak havoc at the Malthouse Theatre next month.

The adaptation sees celebrated director Stephen Nicolazzo and playwright Dan Giovannoni reunite after the success of their adaptation of Tsiolkas’ Merciless Gods. With Tsiolkas on board to assist with the adaptation, the trio have taken this classic drug-fuelled fantasia and brought it screaming into the present.

“We wanted to respond to the thing that we all saw in Ari which felt so now,” says Giovannoni, “He’s a classic character: a young man railing against the pressures that are on him. He’s James Dean in another time and context.”

Says Tsiolkas: “Revisiting your work is always challenging. But what’s been exciting and risky is that it’s like a call and response between the ’90s and now. Those questions of identity that are now present everywhere; what is race? What is class? What is sexuality … Interrogating that has been exciting.”

The questions at the centre of Loaded, as well as the transgression that drives it, were informed by the Queer New Wave, which rejected a politics of respectability in favour of embracing narrative excess, partying and different ways of telling stories to represent different ways of being.

“Characters like Ari weren’t in the books I was reading or the movies I was watching.”

“Ari didn’t come out of nowhere. He came out of a time when it was actually exciting to see Gregg Araki’s work … this work where everything was in flux. Queer culture had just come out of the HIV/AIDS era,” says Tsiolkas. “I was Ari’s age when that was happening. Australia was coming out of what seemed like a really enlightened time in the late ’80s and then it was suddenly Howard and One Nation.

“That snap back to something more conservative is where Ari came from. Characters like Ari weren’t in the books I was reading or the movies I was watching.”

Malthouse’s Loaded will embrace Tsiolkas’ mercurial prose, transforming it into a sprawling monologue that will see performer Danny Ball become Ari, as well as every character he meets. It’s an adaptation that invites the audience to not only meet Australia’s enfant terrible “pousti” (which is the Greek word for homosexual, a term which Ari grapples with), but make eyes with him across the dance floor at The Peel.

“There are things that happen in our head, the conversations and the asides and the confusions there,” says Tsiolkas, “That’s what Ari does … he exposes space between the public and the private. That’s where the danger is. That’s what’s most thrilling.

“What I think the stage does with more clarity is remind you of Ari’s vulnerability. Danny’s been incredible in bringing that out in the work. I watch Ari as a man in my 50s and I think ‘Oh my god, you’re a 19-year-old’. I want to put my arms around him and tell him to be careful, knowing that Ari would probably punch me. He’d hate that,” laughs Tsiolkas.

The honesty has made Loaded, and Ari, hugely important to so many all over Australia. Bringing the work to Malthouse gives a new generation the opportunity to meet him.

“In the brief period that I’ve been attached to this story, so many gay men and queer people have told me how much they’ve connected with Ari. He’s sort of this icon … which is a title he would probably reject,” laughs Giovannoni.

“I suppose, in that way, it’s not always Greeks who respond to Ari. It’s a sign that people are hungry for stories like this. And that’s what I enjoy about seeing a character like Ari on stage.”

Loaded promises to be a wild ride, a daring theatrical risk, an epic night out. Gay men in Melbourne might not be OK. But it’ll make for good drama.

Loaded is on at the Malthouse Theatre from May 10.

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