Loaded review – Christos Tsiolkas' hedonistic breakout novel becomes an exhilarating audio play

Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre has turned the novelist’s 1995 work into a visceral, aural blast of sex, drugs and queer energy

As love letters to Melbourne go, Christos Tsiolkas’s 1995 debut novel Loaded was a bloody and brutal one. It tracked the nihilistic anti-hero Ari across the city as he weaved his way through its darkened alleyways and across its throbbing dancefloors, from the flat, smoky grit of the western suburbs to the soulless expanses of the east. Twenty-five years on, the hyper-masculine, aggressively sexual gay hedonist is back, and he hasn’t mellowed one bit.

Malthouse Theatre intended to adapt Tsiolkas’ novel into a stage play before Covid came and ruined everything, so it’s galvanising to see the Melbourne-based company transform the work into a downloadable audio play, adapted by the novelist himself and playwright Dan Giovannoni. The result, while losing director Stephen Nicolazzo’s uncanny abilities with mise-en-scène, still manages to pack a visceral punch, aided by a superb performance by Five Bedrooms actor Roy Joseph.

Loaded burst on to the Australian literary scene with a ferocity that could only come from lived experience, presenting a view of gay life that might have seemed shocking to mainstream readers but thrummed with authenticity. It documented a day-in-the-life portrait of risky sexual encounters, constant chasing of drug highs, and a potential romance between the Greek-Aussie narrator Ari and the straight-acting George. The novel hinges on Ari’s attitude to love: will he succumb to his feelings at the risk of fulfilling prototypical gay expectations, or resist and stand alone, a man apart?

The decision to update the work, to locate it in the present (or at least the immediate past, when people like Ari could still burn the nights away in sweaty clubs), produces a few wobbles but proves to be a judicious move. The addition of social media and smartphones is unobtrusive – Ari is the kind of guy who eschews virtual connections in favour of close bodily contact anyway – and the protagonist’s blunt rage fits easily into the current zeitgeist. But it’s the way Tsiolkas’s bellicose proselytising rubs against the more reductionist tendencies of identity politics that seems most provocative.

While Ari dismisses his family’s cultural heritage, couching it as a failure of imagination, he’s capable of sudden pride. “I’m not white, I’m a wog.” And while he mixes in LGBTQI circles, he won’t actually identify as gay, or queer: “I prefer faggot.” His disdain extends from hipsters to “gender fluids” to greenies, a kind of pathological need to belong nowhere.

Ari is, according to himself, “Not Australian, I’m not Greek, I’m not anything. I’m not a worker, I’m not a student, I’m not an artist.” His misanthropy, like his narcissism, is neither a pose nor a political position, even if it is self-effacing and masochistic. In this way, he resembles JD Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, his self-disgust manifesting as a disgust for all the world. But for all that Ari is a negation, he is also fully alive; his longing for George and his loyalty to his best friend Johnny, his unwavering sexual and kinetic energy, his deep sensuality and sudden tenderness, even his speed-infused hallucinations, are a part of his extraordinary life force.

Joseph, under supple direction from Nicolazzo, navigates the single day of Ari’s crisis of love and belonging with expert dynamism and control. There is a warmth to him that softens the character’s harshest edges, cushions the antagonism and self-loathing. The intimacy of the audio play – that sense that Ari is speaking from inside our own heads – intensifies the drug-fuelled highs and the crushing romantic disappointments; it’s very hard to distance yourself from Ari’s decisions. Daniel Nixon’s musical score is alternately hazy and driving, a soundtrack of dislocation and discursiveness.

This adaptation of this famous Australian novel mightn’t have the brazenness we saw last year with Malthouse’s Wake in Fright – it’s a less radical overhaul of the material, a less ambitious deconstruction of the novel’s concerns – but it is a powerful insight into society’s alienating effect on the young, and the emotional landscapes queer kids need to cross to feel remotely human. As an audio play, it recalls the raging self-abjuration of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground or Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, where young men rail against their own fracturing selves. As a reminder of the pulsing heartbeat of Melbourne, its dingy and dangerous crevices, it’s strangely exhilarating.

Loaded, the audio play, is available to listen to now

Tim Byrne

The GuardianTramp

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