By Louis Nowra
Directed by Sarah Goodes
What is not to love about the ambition of putting on a show, particularly when it is that age-old entertainment tradition of a-show-within-a-show … think Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, Bob Fosse’s ‘Cabaret’, Karel Reisz' 'The French Lieutenant's Woman', even William Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’… 'Così' is a little in this tradition and also has the wonderful heritage of reflecting a period of its creator Louis Nowra’s life.
In 'Così', our recently graduated director Lewis (Sean Keenan) has been recruited to put on a show in an asylum outside Melbourne in the early 1970’s; a period of free-love and anti-Vietnam war protests. In the era when almost all the ’isms’ were turned on their heads or coming to a head, Lewis thinks a nice, ‘reflectively detached‘ Brecht piece will be appropriate.
But inmate Roy (Robert Menzies) has his depressive, bi-polar heart and mind set on Mozart’s emotionally unreserved, romantic opera ‘Cosi fan Tutte’, even though none of the inmates have acting backgrounds (except Roy); nor sing, dance or speak Italian.
The cast itself consists of Rob (Robert Menzies), obese and violent Cherry (Bessie Holland), junkie Julie (Esther Hannaford), obsessive-compulsive Ruth (Katherine Tonkin), arsonist Doug (Rahel Romahn) and the debilitating depressed Henry (Glenn Hazedine); along with the opera’s musician Zac (Gabriel Fancourt) who is Xanaxed to the eyeballs. To note, is that the arsonist is a risk to self and others and does light a fire in the bathroom … but I digress.
The young director faces some compelling dilemmas while bringing the production to opening night. His politically active girlfriend and best friend are bonking, believing that romance and fidelity are concepts for the privileged few in a time of war. The depressed to almost comatose Henry, whose father was a soldier, becomes hysterical when he finds that Lewis’s best friend (the fore-mentioned girlfriend bonker) is sending money for medical supplies to the Communists. Lewis himself finds he has the hots for junkie Julie, while the awesomely sumo-esque Cherry keeps declaring her love for Lewis and threatening both Lewis and Julie with a flick-knife when they get too cosy.
In a retrospective recitation near play's end, Lewis reveals Julie’s death by over-dose and the ongoing incarceration of other cast members barring obsessive-compulsive Ruth (Katherine Tonkin), who managed to have a life beyond the asylum walls as a time-motion consultant.
'Cosi' is far too politically nuanced for me to cover the rainbow that it delivers, but much focuses on the politics of the personal over the gesturally grand, and by so doing it covers some very tricky grey areas, frequently getting its big heart confusedly messy in the process. I think this may be part of the 1992-written 'Cosi's' on-going charm and relevance.
Co-production of Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne Theatre Company
Sydney Opera House until 14 December