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The seedy, sleazy underworld of Mortido


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Angela Betzien’s Mortido is a play about cocaine: the users, the drug mules, the importers, the sellers and the law enforcers attempting to eliminate it.

Set in Sydney, the performance begins with actor Colin Friels delivering a soliloquy about a poor Mexican child who is killed while being used to deliver drugs, and the Mexican connection remains throughout the play because of the cartels providing the cocaine.

Friels plays the seemingly friendly detective Grubbe, who wants to catch the hardened criminals at the top of the drug chain. He also takes on the roles of Christos, a Greek, a wealthy German and others.

He is good at accents and distinguishing characters, injecting life and interest in every scene in this co-production by the State Theatre Company of SA and Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre.

The cast includes Tom Conroy as Jimmy, a sad young man hooked on drugs himself and trying to keep clean, but who is relatively easily duped into being involved in a very heavy drug scene. Conroy conveys clearly the confusion and sadness within his character; he gets himself in deep but he doesn’t want his family to suffer because of his poor choices.

Renato Musolino is suitably detestable as money-driven Monte, the cocaine-snorting dealer whose ambition is to become a much bigger and more ruthless player. He also plays an interesting cameo as Darren Shine, another addict who seeks vengeance on Jimmy. Louisa Mignone is Scarlet, Monte’s wife, who enjoys the material comforts her husband’s business dealings provide and seems unconcerned as to how he makes his money.

The set is very dark, reflecting the themes of Betzien’s play; there is no light at the end of the tunnel for any of the characters. Designer Geoff Cobham does, however, provide some bright lights in a space that is like a seedy, sleazy underworld with the occasional hint of disco; the bleak darkness also brightens for a summary execution.

A wall of glass upstage, and an adjacent wall of mirror tiles, enable some nice visuals of reflections and for other characters to be visible. The only colour is provided by a very bright pinata centre-stage.

The sombre, oppressive music by composer The Sweats hauntingly overshadows the misery of the characters’ lives.


Renato Musolino and Tom Conroy. Photo: Shane Reid

However, Mortido seems to me to be more of a television drama than a theatrical one, regardless of the fine performances, set and lighting. There is little to imagine or interpret, as it is all laid out for us. The play may be attempting to shock or disturb with its mandatory swearing and cursing, cocaine sniffing and gratuitous sex, but the violence and malevolence is mostly predictable.

Betzien has clearly done her homework about the venues where Mortido is set and the personalities who are often involved in drug importation and distribution. Nonetheless, there is nothing really new in this production about the drug world, and it is hard to feel moved by a play when you do not feel attached to any of the characters.

Mortido is well staged and well acted, but I have gained more insight into the world of drug addiction from watching Russell Brand describe the condition as people having a mental illness rather than it being a criminal offence. The play depicts the ugly side of human nature without ever revealing that there may be some hope within a terrible situation.

Mortido is being presented at the Dunstan Playhouse until October 31.

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