The State Theatre Company of South Australia
Dunstan Playhouse
Until 02 Dec 2018

Review by John Wells

At the end of the show, as the audience – many of them standing - cheered heartily, playwright Elena Carapetis was coaxed up on stage to take a bow with her cast. Barefoot and beaming, Carapetis acknowledged the well-deserved applause. We applauded not just because we had just seen an impressive, ambitious and well-crafted production, but because we had just seen that rarest of creatures: a new Australian play. And not just a new Australian play: a play by a South Australian playwright, telling South Australian stories, (it’s set in Port Pirie – I bet you’ve never read that before) on the main stage of our biggest theatre company. You’re more likely to glimpse a thylacine…

All theatre companies know there are too many empty seats in our auditoriums. For theatre to thrive in the 21st century, new stories must be told, and new audiences must be engaged.

“The Gods of Strangers” is affecting, full of verve and warm-hearted love.

In the rough and hard years after the Second World War, two women, Italian and Greek, navigate the harsh South Australian landscape. Assunta (Dina Panozzo) runs a boarding house, with a glint in her eye and a steely business sense. Vasiliki (Deborah Galanos) has a grocery store and devotes herself to turning her boy into a good young man. Together, they cackle and chatter: friends, conspirators and confidantes. A stranger walks into each woman’s life: Vito (Renato Musolino), a gentle, haunted Italian refugee, rents a room from Assunta; Anna (Eugenia Fragos), brings bitterness and long-held anger into Vasiliki’s family. Agnes (Elizabeth Hay) is a young and sweetly naïve primary school teacher, coming to terms with the baffling rhythms of an isolated country outpost. The strangers bring doubts, recriminations and clashes between the old worlds and the new lives.

Carapetis’ passion in bringing intimate, untold stories is palpable. The script is expressive, emotional and frequently funny. There are moments of both emotive intensity and calm stillness. The bonds and the fractures between women, and the broken sadness of the men are wonderfully evoked. It is at first startling, and then quickly quite happily unremarkable, to have a tri-lingual play (with surtitles): the cast speaks in Greek and Italian (Anna speaks both – and French – and despairs that the Australians can’t comprehend anything other than English). It is a lovely reflection on the successes of multiculturalism that many in the audience are clearly a few steps ahead of the surtitles and are giggling at some of the untranslated extemporizing.

At times, the text suffers from an imbalance between intimate and broader themes. The intensely private stories sit uneasily with the wider observations of the migrant experience. Sometimes the characters lack subtlety and feel like stereotypes – for example, the over-emotive Southern European and the prissy, uptight Anglo – and there are moments when narrative veers into overwrought melodrama.

Director Geordie Brookman succeeds in keeping many plates spinning. He draws strong performances from the cast, and manages to emulsify the fearful isolation with a sense of togetherness. Despite the heightened pitch of some scenes, the characters’ personal turmoil is emotionally credible. The cohesive direction and acting is assisted by Hilary Kleinig’s excellent cello-driven score – contemplative and solemn at times, and with a breezy Euro-folk brio at others. Victoria Lamb’s set depicts a run-down and makeshift Port Pirie, all corrugated iron and the splintering wood of packing crates. It is a versatile and beautifully evocative design, wonderfully lit by Gavin Norris. Norris and Lamb work exceptionally well together: the physical spaces and atmospheres suit the action perfectly. That said, the personal complexity of the various strands of the story sometimes feel too intimate in a large theatre.

There is excellent ensemble work from the cast: in particular, Musolino finds an aching sadness and a delightful bewilderment; Galanos and Panozzo are funny, ribald and tetchy, with great wells of feeling; Hay brings sensitive layers to a less complex character.

Carapetis’ writing is particularly powerful in her ability to show how Australia has successfully woven post-war migrants into the fabric of the nation, and the subtle questioning of why we now demonise those who seek shelter and safety here. A dominant, lasting effect of the production is a sense of looking back with pride, and looking forward with hope.