By Louis Nowra
Directed by Sarah Goodes
Sydney Theatre Company
Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Being a playwright must be such a soul-destroying profession. Getting a play produced once is a hard slog but necessary if the play is to make any money for you. Unless you are William Shakespeare or David Williamson it is unusual for one of your plays to have a life beyond one or two productions.
Louis Nowra’s Cosi is a massive exception in that it gets about 20 to 30 productions a year, with its first in Melbourne and Sydney in 1992 followed by a film a few years later.
I first saw Cosi at Belvoir in 1992. A revival 27 years later shows that the show has legs and it is that rare creature that survives and breaks the rules.
This revival is a co-production between the Sydney and Melbourne Theatre Companies and well worth seeing. I enjoyed it more than the initial production and the film though my memories are fairly sketchy. What I most remember from the Belvoir production was the first time I saw David Wenham and he made a big impression. He plays Doug who is a pyromaniac and we saw his “boy from the working-class suburbs” that he has given us a few times in his career. In this production, he is played by Rahel Romahn and has my favourite line from the play when he explains that pyros always get caught as they stay around to watch their work.
Doug is just one of the “different” characters in this play within a play, which takes place in a mental institution. It is part of a trilogy of plays from Nowra that have an autobiographical background. Summer of the Aliens is about when he was 14, based on living in the institution that housed two of his grandparents and the third, This Much is True was presented at The Old Fitz Theatre in Woolloomooloo in 2017.
In Cosi, Lewis (Sean Keenan) who is Nowra’s alter-ego in all three plays, hopes to help the patients in the institution by directing a play by Bertolt Brecht. The play is set in 1971 at the height of the Vietnam Moratoriums. Lewis has a best friend and girlfriend who are organisers of the demonstrations and very much products of the period who believe in peace and free love. Naturally his ambitions don’t happen easily as the theatre is burnt out and very few patients are interested. Then there is Roy (Robert Menzies in the performance of his career) who will not have anything to do with the project unless they perform Mozart’s opera Cosi Fan Tutte. Naturally this creates a major problem in that no one can sing or play a musical instrument and none can speak Italian. But there is no stopping the whirlwind force that is Roy and so they proceed to rehearse the opera.
There is a musician Zac (Gabriel Fancourt) who can play the burnt and broken upright piano. But there is a minor problem in that he is so drugged that he continually falls asleep at the keys. He also would prefer to play Wagner on his piano accordion.
They are joined by Ruth (Katherine Tonkin) who is very OCD and needs to be told exactly what to do (e.g. seven steps to the front), Julie (Esther Hannaford) who is a very quiet addict who wants to get out so she can find a hit to continue on her addicted way, Cherry (Bessie Holland) who is larger than life and steals every scene she is in and Henry (Glenn Hazeldine) who was a lawyer and now is so miserable he is almost catatonic.
Needless to say it is a long and difficult road to opening performance. Lewis knows nothing about rehearsing and that is no problem as Roy tells him what he must do. And of course he eventually succeeds but not until he has overcome many hurdles. A major one of these being Doug who cannot help his pyro ways and is removed from the rehearsals so Lewis has to insert himself into the cast.
The inmates, as inexperienced actors, provide for some side-splitting moments but the drama associated with the situation is really the main point of the play and, as a director, I can assure you that this is captured brilliantly by Nowra and director Sarah Goodes. I’ve seen all these character types in my school plays and amateur theatre productions. It is a difficult balancing act keeping all these different elements in line in order to get the show happening.
As well as dealing with the usual difficulties of directing a play not to mention the egos and needs of the different cast members Lewis has discovered his partner Lucy (Esther Hannaford) is having a sexual relationship with is best friend Nick (Gabriel Fancourt). The play takes precedence and he eventually overcomes all the problems and wrangles his company to present a glorious and colourful Cosi to their audience and to us.
This is a great production of what can be a very difficult play. When I saw it (and the movie) I felt they were overlong and overwritten. This glorious production overcomes those problems.
The set by Dale Ferguson, costumes from Jonathon Oxlade, lighting by Niklas Pajanti and music and sound design by Chris Williams all contribute to the triumph that this show is.
I also loved, as I always do, the recent show from the Sydney Dance Company. All their shows are special to me, but this one had the first act with 6 Breaths choreographed by Rafael Bonachela and the second was Us 50 choreographed by Gideon Obarzanek, created to celebrate the 50 years of the Sydney Dance Company. We saw many dancers from the past with the current company and they are joined by 25 members of the audience who are instructed on their movements through ear pieces. At the end there are 50 people on stage. I have to admit to being a bit weepy.
Frank Barnes is retired and wishes you all the best for the holidays. Take advantage of the spare time