Tom Conroy and Colin Friels in Mortido. Photo credit: Shane Reid

Tom Conroy and Colin Friels in Mortido. Photo credit: Shane Reid

Sydney is a city of shine and reflective surfaces. The glint of the harbour follows through to city high-rises clad in polished glass, bouncing off the wide windows of the mansions hugging the undulating land before it gives way to the impossibly deep and wide water. It’s a sight that startles me every time I see it.

This beauty that can betray the darkness of the city and its people. A city with its high rate of visible homelessness, where shacks sell for a million dollars, and nurses can’t afford to live near hospitals. A city where the pressure is always on to move up, up, up: have more money, have more success, be more beautiful. Shine like the harbour, lest you be sucked into its depths.

Angela Betzien’s Mortido, directed by Leticia Cáceres, is a story of this Sydney. In the shiny surfaces of Robert Cousin’s set, we see reflections of debauched nights at the Ivy, or boring afternoons punctuated by burritos at the Liverpool Megacenta food court. Under the steady, punishing beat of THE SWEATS’ music we discover the hierarchy of the city: the powerful unseen La Madre at the top of the underworld food chain; the rich middleman in Woollahra, Monte (Renato Musolino), wanting only to get richer; Monte’s working-class brother-in-law, Jimmy (Tom Conroy), an ex-drug user and TAFE student living in Penrith. Though the shine, Geoff Cobham’s lights mold spaces to show where Sydney sits in the world: it is a city whose local middlemen make trips to Berlin, only for that city’s own middlemen to send them on to Bolivia, where society’s most vulnerable members are exploited and children are used as slaves and mules.

It’s Conroy’s Jimmy we’re most attached and attuned to. This young man, already beaten down when we meet him, is thrust into a world he thinks he can attain power in – but it will never allow him to gain that foothold. His importance to others lies primarily in the way he can be trod on and manipulated.

It’s through his eyes we see the world: from the shine of his sister’s apartment to the dirt of Bolivia. And it’s through his eyes we experience the play’s most powerful moments; as Jimmy’s realities begin to collide and he, and we, aren’t quite sure of where he stands. Of what’s real and what’s pretend. Of how much of what we see can be trusted in this surreal, drug-fuelled reality.

In Betzien and Cáceres’s Mortido, drugs don’t just mess with lives physically and financially: they lower all of us into a waking nightmare.

Nephews in Sydney become increasingly ill, morphing into young boys from Bolivia; their small heads wearing beanies seen in other countries; blank-eyed, they draw cockfights on walls in red lipstick. Sydney detectives suddenly make threats in German expelled under their breath. El Gallito, the Spanish-speaking boyfriend with a thick scar down his stomach, could exist in either Sydney or Bolivia, or both, or neither. It’s within these surreal elements that the heart of Mortido beats: a sickening dizziness threatening to pull us all into the depths of the play’s world.

Unfortunately, despite the power of this surrealism, there is a major structural issue at the centre of Mortido in the character of Detective Grubbe, compounded by Colin Friels’ performance in the role. Grubbe is meant to sit somewhat outside of this world: he is the man who will end it, not a man with a hand in its creation. But in Cáceres production, he sits too far removed, in a performance and a character that feels lifted from another play all together.

Dressed in a grey suit and black shirt, Friels opens the work with a monologue about a young boy whose stomach was cut open and filled with drugs to smuggle across the border: just a sleeping boy on the backseat, nothing to raise suspicions. This introduction appears to cast Friels in the role of our narrator. When he returns in this costume, Friels again directs his speech to the audience, his slightly clipped accent a step away from the easy Australian drawl of the other Sydney characters. He, again, seems to be the narrator – until Jimmy speaks to him, and Grubbe is lassoed into a stage world in which he never sits comfortably.

It’s only as the German cartel king Barbie, who has found refuge and power in Bolivia, that Friels settles in to the world of Mortido. A man who wields complete control over his domain, Barbie is confronted with less complexity than the Sydney detective who must negotiate between worlds. It is only when he has this fuller sense of control that Friels relaxes into the play, rather than fighting against it.

While Friels has dominated the marketing for this show, it’s never his story, and the further we move away from him the stronger the work becomes. You have to wonder whether, if less marketing was placed on Friels’ shoulders, or a less famous actor was cast, Grubbe might not have been edited into a smaller role, or written out altogether.

Instead, in the strongest moments of this consequently uneven play, we swirl around Conroy, and his complex and compelling portrait of a young man in his twenties: trying to figure out how to put one foot in front of the other, and finally grasping a semblance power before, of course, it all disappears.

Mortido played at the Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide, for the State Theatre Company of South Australia, October 16 to 31. It plays Belvoir Theatre, Sydney, November 6 to December 17. More information and tickets. The script is available from Readings.