Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre
November 16, 2018
Our narrators, set against a bleak set of corrugated iron and louvered windows, quickly reveal that discrimination is alive and well in the South Australian town of Port Pirie in 1947. The ‘white men’ are offered the first jobs being queued for, begging the question, who are the other men?
It’s a galling start in a country famous for the ‘fair go’ and these are not the only dark undercurrents in this grand undertaking. The extensive research into this historical fiction by playwright Elena Carapetis shows us, if nothing else, the indomitable spirit of migrants.
Deborah Galanos as Vasiliki in State Theatre Company South Australia’s The Gods of Strangers. Photo © Chris Herzfeld
The past lives of the characters all collide in a tale dotted with smatterings of superstition and religion. There are secrets and lies and backgammon and the mention of a ‘dago’. There is a good old-fashioned brawl, tunes from Tosca, and some home made tsipouro by the shot. This show has (almost) everything.
Directed by Geordie Brookman, the accents are consistently excellent in this dialogue heavy tale. Carapetis makes a good point about monolingualism, but it comes at a price. This trilingual production is a nearly three-hour investment that at times, feels like hard work. Relaxing night at the theatre this is not, but there is intrigue aplenty and quality performances to make it worth your while.
Outstanding portrayals come from Dina Panozzo as the formidable Italian boarding house proprietrix, Assunta, and Deborah Galanos as friend Vasiliki, the duplicitous Greek shopkeeper. These strong, sassy characters are beautifully drawn and executed with perfection from two consummate actors. Their uninhibited emotions and warmth are convincing and compelling.
Dina Panozzo as Assunta and Deborah Galanos as Vasiliki in State Theatre Company South Australia’s The Gods of Strangers. Photo © Chris Herzfeld
Disappointingly, the character of Agnes (Elizabeth Hay) is under drawn and overplayed; neither pivotal nor supportive. It’s a missed opportunity for Hay’s talent.
Hilary Kleinig’s splendid ethnically influenced string compositions go some ways to unite the somewhat episodic storytelling. The amount of narrative exposition in this work risks undervaluing the sophistication of the audience and stalling the pace. The information imparted is vital for historical context, but the means of delivery makes for unexciting viewing that reduces the seduction of a building intrigue.
There are many excellent observations throughout, but the production suffers a little from point making, which does not always translate into good story telling. There are several exceptional, quote-worthy one-liners that speak to the capacity of the playwright.
The half-time cliffhanger and the act two tableau/montage are excellent and leave us wanting more, but a few aspects jar with our expectations of the post war setting and take us away from the unfolding plot.
Dina Panozzo as Assunta and Renato Musolino as Vito in State Theatre Company South Australia’s The Gods of Strangers. Photo © Chris Herzfeld
If success were measured on effort and passion alone, this production would be a hit, but The Gods of Strangers is both too long and not long enough. To criticise the amount of material contained in the play seems churlish because it very nearly works, but the theme of forgiving the unforgivable, deserves several three-hour plays alone. In trying to contain in one show the myriad issues surrounding migration, integration, humanity, ethnicity, revenge, belonging, cultural misunderstanding (and plenty more!) the production perhaps struggles to find its own identity; at times seeming unclear about what it is. The dissolves in to farce feel unnecessary as do the melodramatic aspects, and attempts at humour don’t add to the pace or particularly put us at ease.
Like all productions, this play can’t be all things to all people, but it will resonate impressively with many. The resounding achievement of The Gods of Strangers is its ability to show us where we’ve come from. It might just help us work out where we’re going.
The Gods of Strangers is at Dunstan Playhouse until December 2