Loaded (Beckett Theatre, Melbourne) ★★★★★

Danny Ball is alive as Ari, the drug-fueled, hungry protagonist of Loaded, an adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ novel of youthful queer excess in Melbourne, Australia. Updated to the 2020s by Tsiolkas and Dan Giovannoni, this one-man show is a fierce dive into the brain and body of a second-generation Greek-Australian defying the world around him.

Loaded. Photo by: Tamarah Scott. Courtesy of Malthouse Theatre.

This is 24hrs in the life of a nineteen-year-old, full of lust and fury. Unemployed, dealing drugs on the side, Ari has no savings, no incoming and no interest in the mainstream queer society around him. He is a working-class nihilist, full of machismo who thinks that he’s in love with an Aussie guy, but can’t bring himself to let him know.

Loaded. Photo by: Tamarah Scott. Courtesy of Malthouse Theatre.

Bringing this quintessentially 90s novel into the modern day gives Ari’s life a different flavour to previous versions of this story (both the original book, and the film adaptation, Head On). That pre-millennium listlessness is replaced with a new sense of hopelessness. Whether that is from a decaying climate, lack of financial prospects, or something more malignant, is hard to tell, but Ari is adrift. He has a messed up relationship to both his Greek identity and his queerness. To escape he fucks the pain away.

What Loaded does best is put the audience in the mind of Ari. Ball is a strongly empathic actor, his expressions draw you in and his micro-expressions colour in the nuances. You feel each drug as it hits his system, the pulse of joy with each tune he hears, the thrill of flirting and the cat and mouse game of desire mixed with danger. But what lingers most is his confusion. Ari is on the cusp of adulthood, but not quite there. He is exploring his power as a handsome, sexual young man, but doesn’t yet know his limits. 

Loaded. Photo by: Tamarah Scott. Courtesy of Malthouse Theatre.

While Tsiolkas’s novel was filled with queer Gen X angst as they faced “the end of history”, this reinvention of the Ari draws from a fresher well of anxieties. The update here is more than just changing up the musical touchstones and mentioning Grindr, it’s slipping into the headspace of a whole new generation, while the compelling human story at the centre remains untouched. The drives for satisfaction, for connection, for freedom are universal. 

Director Stephen Nicolazzo keeps this monologue on its feet (Ball must be exhausted by the end of each performance). Ari is forever dancings, running, exploring every inch of the stage; like a restless beast he patrols his cage. The staging by Nathan Burmeister pulses with life, framed by an archway of blue tiles revealing a concrete playground on a revolve that flicks from sterile to seedy thanks to Katie Sfetkidis’ lighting.

Loaded. Photo by: Tamarah Scott. Courtesy of Malthouse Theatre.

The night truly does belong to Danny Ball who, after the success of his own play The Italians, once again brings a story of queerness intersecting with immigrant heritage to vivid life. Despite the story’s Melbourne-specific observations (Ari’s disdain for each region of the city drew riotous laughter), this is a production that deserves to be seen far and wide.

By Chad Armstrong

Loaded runs Malthouse’s Beckett Theatre in Melbourne until Saturday, June 3rd, 2023.

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