No charming opera, this Così is a darkly comic play

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Published: 31st May, 2019
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Louis Nowra wrote Così after a real life experience close to the one depicted in this play. Throughout, it reeks of truth – pithy observations, chills of reality, horror, graveyard humour and moments of unexpected warmth. Written in 1992, the piece has had a long history of successful performances since its premiere.

Cosi is set at the time of the height of protest at Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war, there is a background of social upheaval and questioning of previous attitudes and certainties. Medication became pathways for other ways of being – some intentional, some hugely experimental.

Lewis (Sean Keenan), a young and inexperienced theatre director, is to involve patients of a psychiatric ward in a theatre project. In theory, this could be anything – the overseeing social worker Justin (George Zhao) is frustratingly vague about the project, but anal about details like keeping the paperwork trail correct.

Any thoughts Lewis may have had about a suitable project – he does have some vague ideals of Brechtian leanings – are quickly pushed aside by the intense urge of one patient, Roy, played with unswerving strength by Robert Menzies. Roy needs to see the Mozart Opera Cosi Fan Tutte staged at any cost at all.

Other patients show up, although they seem less interested in theatre than in using it to avoid the usual grind of horrors their lives are ruled by in the wards. Julie (Esther Hannaford), a flower child whose addictions have lead her to some very confused morality; Henry (Glenn Hazledine), whose PTSD has his speech bound up in unintelligibility; Cherry (Bessie Holland) whose excessive cheer quickly turns to threats and knife wielding when things aren’t to her liking; Ruth (Katherine Tonkin) whose obsession with detail exhausts everyone’s patience; and Zac (Gabriel Fancourt), whose ups and downs remind us of how far we have come in treating bipolar disorder today.

Their immediate reaction to the proposed opera is to ridicule it – after all, “real”, “down to earth” people are so sure that they are not going to be engaged by the shenanigans of “fancy” types. The fact that these desultory participants also can’t sing or speak Italian seems a lesser issue to them, but is nevertheless a further stumbling block. Lewis translates the Italian, they decide that most of what is sung can be spoken anyway, and despite a number of frustrating setbacks, eventually the cast finds that there are some universal truths spoken in this oper, and that the behaviour of the characters gives reason to think about their own behaviour.

However, in the stresses and strains of all of this, it is the professionals who crack. Lewis, his polygamous lover Lucy (Esther Hannaford), and his best friend Nick (Gabriel Fancourt) come to a crisis point in their relationships, and it becomes apparent that insincerity, hypocrisy and dishonesty have made poor foundations for his world outside the crucible of the hospital.  The breakdown is there for the patients to see; the parallels with the opera impossible to ignore.

The theme for the patients is, in part, redemption. Wisdom comes at various levels from the experience for them – some successfully integrate with the outside world, some do not. Even Roy’s obsession with the opera turns out to be mostly about the memory of one the few happy moments in his childhood.

A form of the opera evolves sufficiently during the rehearsal period that it is able to be staged for the rest of the hospital’s enjoyment. This was screamingly funny and the climax of the show. If the pace had been a little uncertain in the first act, the second became much surer. I suspect that the writing deliberately seeks to disorient the audience at the start – much to put us through the feelings of uncertainty the character Lewis suffers.

There was no doubt that the character Doug – played with cheerful menace by Rahel Romahn – was clearly a danger to the world at large, and his cleverness made him even more of a threat. His monologue about why he was institutionalized is a most disturbing piece, perhaps because it sounds so very like the self-justifying reasoning and simultaneous breathtaking insensitivity to others used by real murderers in actual court cases.

Other characters, however, merely seemed somewhat eccentric, leaving us to wonder why they might themselves have been incarcerated. Perhaps it is in the writing – Nowra wants us to feel empathy for them – but maybe that is how things were in a psych ward at the time.

Some of the physical theatre aspects of the performance were outstanding. Some of the humour found its mark, some didn’t “land”, but that is the nature of theatre – every night is a different show.  Costumes evoked the period very effectively. Those of us of a certain age had strong moments of recognition.

Brief excerpts of Mozart’s music from the opera itself contrasted brilliantly with Chris Williams’ evocative mood pieces.

Stage and lighting design used simple and complex elements cleverly – the almost matte charcoal of the burned out shell of a disused theatre contrasted with the violent whites of the psychiatric ward through various doorways, then finally a clever “instant” set to pop up when the actual show was staged.

It was heartening to see so many school groups there on the night I attended, and also to see their enthusiasm for the work.

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Peter Hurley reviewed Louis Nowra’s play Così on May 21st.  Così, a collaboration by Melbourne Theatre Company and the Sydney Theatre Company, plays at Southbank Theatre The Sumner through June 8.

Così