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Photo by by Brett Boardman

Belvoir and State Theatre Company of South Australia present MORTIDO, by Angela Betzien, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills, 11 November – 17 December.

MORTIDO, by Angela Betzien, is a new Australian play co-commissioned by Belvoir and Playwriting Australia and presented as a co-production by the State Theatre of South Australian and Belvoir.

MORTIDO begins with a storytelling by Detective Grubbe, of a Mexican fable about a Madre – a mother, The Boy – her son, and an Old German. Of murder. Of drugs – cocaine. Of a magic potion of cinnamon, garlic, banana, onion, fat, raisins, thyme and Coca-Cola. Of Santa Muerte, Our Lady of Death, and of the ‘resurrection’ of The Boy as El Gallito – The Little Rooster, who becomes the most fearsome cartel leader in all of Mexico.

And no-one, not even Santa Muerte, could bleed La Madre’s hatred of the Old German, he who had slaughtered her son like a pollito in that butcher’s shop, so long ago in Mexico. And so began a war that would have no end.

Then the play shifts – BANG – to a home in Woollahra, to a Housing Estate in Surry Hills, to a Liverpool food-court. To Kruezberg, and the ‘thumping’ Club Berghain, Berlin. To Coroico, Bolivia. To the Ivy Nightclub, Sydney CBD, Penrith, Bondi Junction, Cabramatta, Kings Cross, and, finally, a funeral in Punchbowl. This ‘fable’ is of our contemporary world – of the Emerald City called Sydney.

Mortido. Do you know what that is, Jimmy? I have it. You have it. … The death instinct. The desire for self-destruction. … Freud reckoned love and hate, sex and death are twin impulses. The act of consumption gives life to the consumer but destroys the consumed. … Existence is an endless cycle of life and death, life and death. But ultimately, the aim of all life is self-destruction. That’s mortido, Jimmy.

MORTIDO is a thrilling ride, charged with the audacity of the ambition of Ms Betzien’s imagination and research, its mixture of the where and when familiarities of most of its locations, startlingly mixed with the ‘magic realisms’ of the Central America’s cultures, laden with the strange allure that an ‘evil’ mixed with sexual promise and experience can conjure, and allow, in our own desires. The writing is mesmerising, tantalising us with a safe overview of the consequent sufferings – ‘collateral damage’ – arising from the craving of the glittering ‘other’, with imaginative acquaintance to characters and events of a glamorous ‘underworld’ of the forbidden, which Ms Betzien invites us to watch as it corrosively attaches itself across all generations of ‘families’ around the world. Family and cocaine as familiar, in this world of ours, as Family and Coca Cola can be.

The Director, Leticia Caceres with Set and Costume Designer, Robert Cousins, have created a flexible space/world that darkly permits the shifting from location to location in the play causing, gradually, the exposure into a ‘white’-light dimension, by ripping the flooring away, of the bloody inevitabilities of the hedonistic pursuit of greed and power in complex dimensions- of motido in action, to be, ultimately, smeared bloodily on a white background. Geoff Cobham, Lighting Designer, captures the murky colours of this false world of glamour, accompanied by Composition by THE SWEATS, with a magnificent Sound Design, by Nate Edmondson, that aurally careers around the alluring, confronting spaces and time of the play.

Coiln Friels is superb in this production, playing four characters: the world-wise Detective Grubbe; Christos Lymbious, a Greek/Australian, indebted with a smothering guilt-love for his bed-ridden mother, trying desperately to stay ‘straight’; Heinrich Barbie, a German/Bolivian of sinister intentions and Nazi inheritance, and a Serbian/Australian, Bratislav Ackervik, in ‘trackies’, laconically munching a snack whilst delivering boxes of ‘evil’. The wit of Mr Friel’s characterisations with beautifully judged economies of ‘iconic’ gesture for each of his men, delivers a delight of a kind of ‘genius’, enjoying immensely the latitudes of creation he has been given to ‘play’ with. There is no repetition of choice going on here, each man, Mr Friels inhabits, or, is possessed by (what you will), is an individual and distinct life force, drawn with ‘wicked’/cheeky observations and insight. The sense of the ‘fun’ that the actor as a craftsmen is having, bubbles beneath a set of absolutely succinct, refined, choices, that should be studied by all ‘students’ of acting for the relaxed signals, clues, he gives his audience to endow and enjoy. The opening three and a half page monologue is worth the price of the ticket, alone – watching a great actor, apparently, effortlessly, imaging vividly and manipulating his voice for accurate and entertaining storytelling – he has us ‘see with our ears’ everything – EVERYTHING. It is a rare marvel on Sydney stages – and I mean a MARVEL, in the complete Elizabethan sense of the word. This is a performance given with an understated humility that, fortunately, can’t hide the ‘greatness’ of it.

Is it true that Ms Betzien wrote this work for this actor? If so, scale him up, challenge him even further next time, please. For clearly, Mr Friels relishes what was ‘made’ for him. It was an exciting joy to share with him.

In the centre of the story fulcrum is a hapless, recovering addict, Jimmy – an addict to drugs and sex – played consummately and cumulatively with a bewildered struggle for survival in the world he is drawn into, by Tom Conroy. He is the pivot of the story and Mr Conroy carries it with clarity and sensitivity (I wish his appearance was grubbier). For Jimmy is pulled between the zeal of Detective Grubbe for the forces of light, and by the opposite dynamic force, of what maybe an illusion of desires, El Gallito, dynamically created with sexual fumings and glittering attraction by David Valencia. His glowerings shimmering with temptation and threatening with a poised promise of delicious violence – it comes, the promise is honoured. Mr Valencia’s work, too, is a precise creation, like Mr Friels. These three actors create the atmosphere of the dilemma of the world with immense ‘in-the-moment’ storytelling tension.

Renato Musolino and Louisa Mignone, as Monte and Scarlet, are the calculating ‘villains’ of the scenario and are all the more suggestive because of their characters’ seemingly casual, blasé obsession for ‘life-style’ and all its luxuries at anyone else’s cost. Their dark superficiality is palpable. The symbol that Ms Betzien places onstage, with the presence of a child, Oliver/Alvaro, works well in its emotional blackmail and engenders an empathetic fear that his presence in such a dark world and space indicates a precarious future for mankind – Toby Challenor, on my day.

MORTIDO, then, maybe the best new Australian work we have seen this year. In the midst of the Women in Theatre and Screen (WITS) movement in Sydney, I can’t help but observe MORTIDO is Written by a woman and Directed by another. Other contenders for this Best of Year accolade: BOYS WILL BE BOYS, at the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), earlier this year, Written by Melissa Bubonic, Directed by Paige Rattray (with an all female company); BATTLE OF WATERLOO, also at the STC, Written by Kylie Coolwell and Directed by Sarah Goodes; and THE BLEEDING TREE, although, Written by a man, Angus Cerini, was Directed by Lee Lewis, with an all female company. These four plays no slight contribution, artistically, eh?

One of my fellow theatre goers remarked MORTIDO showed a relentlessly bleak world. I felt that it was, above all else, REAL. I know of some of it first hand. Its Bleakness is integral to its telling of a truth, its warning, that we generally ‘wave’ away. MORTIDO is the play, on a Sydney stage, that does not deflect our gaze from the disasters of our contemporary living. It is what I have been waiting for from our cultural institutions. A theatre experience that asks us to confront our moral dilemmas. Here it is, with all the theatrical aesthetic values of every element of the production serving this writer’s concerns.

Go. Don’t miss it.