On the strength of first night audience reaction, The State Theatre Company’s decision to commission the play The Gods Of Strangers, a tragicomic tale set in rural South Australia, is certain to pay rich dividends.
Elena Carapetis’s engaging play is a life affirming story of human resilience, love and forgiveness, and it received a standing ovation from an opening night audience who were totally absorbed from first scene to last.
The plot is centred upon the complexities of the interwoven lives of two migrant women, from different cultural backgrounds, who are attempting to build new lives in post World War II Port Pirie whilst also having to deal with the unexpected ructions caused by the sudden appearance of two new arrivals in their small town.
All of the characters are easy to empathise with and have been exceptionally well-drawn by Carapetis.
Dina Panozzo is a standout as the boarding house proprietress, Assunta, whose amusingly coarse external brashness belies a sensitive core beneath, as well as disguising the intense repressed grief she is battling to deal with. Assunta’s sometimes confrontational humour, and her explosive emotional mood swings, provide Panozzo with a broad palate from which to work, and she delivers a tour de force performance as a result.
Panozzo is ably supported by a strong cast, led by Deborah Galanos as Vasiliki, the owner of the local grocery, a woman who has sacrificed so much to honour a promise she made to her closest friend before leaving Greece twenty years earlier.
Elizabeth Hay, as the earnest young Australian school teacher, Agnes, is also totally convincing, steadily conveying the young woman’s initially insular naivete eroding slowly through her increasing contact with the close-knit migrant community that she has come to live among. Hay strikes a perfect balance between the dramatic and the comic, and, in many scenes, proves to be a perfect foil for Panozzo’s sassy, worldly wise Assunta.
Renato Musolino, as Vito, the new arrival in Assunta’s boarding house, provides a suitably restrained performance as a man who carries a soul crushing secret and but is determined to make amends for the past deeds that have cost him his chance of finding lasting happiness.
The remaining members of the ensemble, Eugenia Fragos as Anna, the most recent arrival in town, and Phillipos Ziakis as Yianni, the innocent victim of decades’ old interpersonal machinations, both are solid in their roles but have some moments where their delivery lacks total conviction causing the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief to waver momentarily. These moments are rare however.
Director Geordie Brookman has ensured the constant shifting in dialogue between Italian, Greek and English – necessary to establish believable and realistic interplay between characters – does not cause undue confusion by projecting clear surtitles. Someone sitting in the back corner of the auditorium (as I was) should have no trouble reading these. However, the issue with these text screens being placed away from the action on both sides of, and above, the stage – is that, when you are following the dialogue of these often very talkative characters, your eyes are drawn to the words for long stretches of time and attention is taken away from the performers on stage for too long a period.
Important contextual background is cleverly provided at regular intervals through the cast delivering this in the style of a Greek chorus, allowing us to see these particular, individualised stories in a more holistic Australian historical and cultural perspective.
Equally effective is Victoria Lamb’s clever and evocative set design which allows for seamless and fluid setting changes, and which, along with Hilary Kleinig’s sympathetic score, helps create a consistent prevailing atmosphere of affectionate nostalgia that clearly compliments the unfolding action.
As the intertwined stories of each of the characters become one and move towards its inevitable denouement – which is perhaps a little predictable, in a classical Shakespearean way – it is becomes clear that the audience have been given an illuminating insight into the human condition: the message being that we all, no matter where we are from, must learn to live in the present and not allow the past to constrain us, or stop us from sharing our love and appreciation with those who accompany us on our life journeys.
The Gods Of Strangers is a wonderful piece of theatre. It simultaneously celebrates our state’s rich cultural diversity; reaffirms our shared values as a nation, and helps us understand the emotional impact of the significant sacrifices people have had to make in order to pursue a safer and more satisfying life, often dealing with the scission involved in relocation in the traumatic aftermath of war, or of drastic political upheaval, in their homeland.
This play is destined to become a contemporary classic of Australian theatre. It will be added to the repertoire of other companies and inevitably it will make it to the cinema screen, but please don’t sit back and wait for these future adaptions and interpretations – make sure you grab the chance to see this current production as it is unlikely any future versions will be able to better this one.
The Gods Of Strangers will be performed at the Dunstan Playhouse until December 2.
Tickets are available here: The Gods Of Strangers tickets