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Tom Conroy and David Valencia. All images: Brett Boardman.

THEATRE: 13 NOVEMBER 2015

By JOHN ROZENTALS

Mortido, by Angela Bitzien | Directed by Leticia Caceres

Belvoir (http://belvoir.com.au) and State Theatre Company of South Australia (http://www.statetheatrecompany.com.au) | Belvoir Upstairs, Surry Hills, Sydney | Until 17 December

From the moment Colin Friels delivers the lengthy opening monologue as Detective Grubbe in Angela Bitzien’s Mortido, he dominates the Belvoir Upstairs stage — which given his experience and international standing is hardly surprising.

What did surprise me was the strength and complexity of Angela Bitzien’s writing, and her delightful ear for dialogue. It probably shouldn’t have been surprised since even a cursory reading of her CV shows clearly how well regarded she is by her peers and those who hand out awards and fellowships.

She’s still in her mid-30s and entering, probably, the most potent phase of a writer’s life. I certainly look forward to seeing more of her work.

Superficially, Mortido is a crime story based on the ongoing struggle between aging detective Grubbe and members of Sydney’s burgeoning cocaine trade, symbolised by Monte (Renato Musolino), a successful middle-level dealer, and Jimmy (Tom Conroy), a rather thick meth-tragic definitely occupying one of the lower rungs of the drug-world ladder. Perhaps even a hole near the foot of the ladder.

But as with much modern crime writing, there’s real flesh and complexity to the tale, with the story spreading across Sydney, Mexico and Europe, not to mention the transposition of ideas between the real contemporary world and the Mexican legend narrated by Grubbe in his opening monologue.

How much does El Gallito (David Valencia) actually exist as the sexually charged, highly successful drug runner? How much of him is a figment, complete with grotesque abdominal scar, of the legend’s reincarnated Little Rooster?

And what effect does that legend have on Oliver (a role shared by Toby Challenor and Otis Jai Dhanji), the young son of Monte and his wife Scarlet (Louisa Mignone)? His presence in a world dominated by drugs and violence is disturbing to say the least.

Though not as disturbing as the same actors’ presence as blood-covered, portent-laden Alvaro, the young Bolivian boy, in the closing scenes.

And what about the Madre, the druglord who never appears on stage and who’s dying of cancer? Is she related to another figure of legend? Is El Gallito her resurrected son?

And then there’s a philosophic question. The question of mortido itself, a term used by Sigmund Freud to describe the death drive he postulated all living things possessed — the ultimate desire to return to an inanimate state. Is that what’s driving these characters to ultimate self-destruction?

So many questions so cleverly postulated by Betzien and so profoundly asked by director Leticia Caceres and her ever-so-talented cast — and so obviously helped by  the talent and skills of the set-and-costume designer (Robert Cousins), sound designer (Nate Edmundson) and lighting designer (Geoff Cobham).

Thumbs up.

Renato Musolino.

Colin Friels.

Louisa Mignone.