At the centre of Angela Betzien’s Mortido, is a wretched life. Jimmy is a soft and kind soul, misguided by family and exploited by every person he trusts. Emerging into adulthood from a background of poverty and addiction, the only barometer he possesses for a better life is a need for acceptance, along with our definitive measure of success, money. Without the support of anyone who has Jimmy’s own interests at heart, and with no education to speak of, his fate is sealed and doomed. The story is a dark one about the underbelly of Sydney and how our affluence is built upon the perpetuation of an underclass, kept aspirational and concurrently ignorant.
Betzien’s script is highly ambitious and vast in scope. It encompasses themes of family, money and addiction, set against historical contexts, to explore attitudes and machinations of our current sociopolitical environment. The play looks at our problems with narcotics and poverty from micro and macro perspectives, refusing to diminish their complex enormity for convenient storytelling. What results is a piece of writing that is detailed and intricate, but also challenging, for audiences and theatre makers alike.
Director Leticia Cáceres does well at providing the production with tension and intrigue, but the plot’s clarity suffers from that tautness of pace. In its second half especially, too much is revealed too quickly. Our minds struggle to process every poignancy. Each revelation is an important one that contributes, not only to our appreciation of each character’s circumstances, but also to our understanding of the real world. Many of the story’s elements will resonate deeply if given the chance, however, the show seems to rush quickly past and we are left wondering if we had learned everything that is worth knowing.
Nevertheless, Mortido is gripping, and very exciting, with each scene holding surprises, frequently overwhelming with its keen portrayal of brutality, both physical and psychological. Composer The Sweats and sound designer Nate Edmondson do exceptional work with their manipulations of atmosphere. The production relies heavily on its sounds to control our responses, and the precision at which it guides our emotions through every sequence and transition is remarkable. A disappointing contrast does occasionally occur however, when it takes a back seat, leaving the actors to their own devices, and we begin to feel the emptiness of space.
There is plenty of impressive acting to be found including the very young but very compelling Toby Challenor, whose immovable focus on each task in every appearance, belies his tender age. Colin Friels plays several disparate characters, displaying a good level of versatility and enthusiasm, but is probably most effective as Detective Grubbe and El Carnicero. The star’s presence is undeniable and the intensity he brings to the stage has an effortless drama that is absolutely captivating. The central character Jimmy is performed by Tom Conroy with a faultless vulnerability. For all of Jimmy’s regrettable mistakes, we are always on his side, hurting for his every adversity and hoping that a twist of fate appears. Conroy excels in the role, successfully depicting Jimmy’s personal difficulties as well as the social connotations of a problematic life. We understand the responsibilities that are due young people like Jimmy, and realise how we have failed those who share his disadvantage. Also noteworthy is David Valencia as the enigmatic Spanish-speaking El Gallito, memorable for his simultaneous delivery of danger and ethereality, and an aggressive sex appeal that electrifies the stage.
The title of the work refers to our human tendencies toward self-destruction. It is a discussion about weakness, and along with that, we encounter ideas surrounding ethics, responsibility and social harmony. Mortido is a cautionary tale about the seduction of death, and the perils involved when allowing lives to be less than honourable. It confronts the inequity that exists in our wealthy cities, and our complicity in maintaining that damaging status quo. We can always identify good from bad, but we do not always make the right decisions.