Images: Dylan Evans Photography (Main Image L-R: Trevor Stuart, Jessica Marais, Amy Ingram, Anthony Standish, Benjamin Schostakowski, Jennifer Flowers, James Stewart)
Cosi by Louis Nowra is a much-loved and, by now, a classic in the canon of modern Australian plays. According to David Berthold, it’s also the playwright’s personal favourite. It’s certainly admired by La Boite Theatre Company who have produced it three times over the years. The latest has just opened at the Roundhouse under the direction of Mr Berthold and it’s a production that finds the rhythm of the play’s compassionate heart.
Filled with marvellous characters, and set in an asylum during the Vietnam War, Cosi follows the adventures of young Lewis (Ben Schostakowski) a uni student, who gets a job helping the inmates “put on a show.” He’s all for a bit of Brecht but Roy (played with glorious gusto by Trevor Stuart) is adamant that the music of the spheres must be heard in their shabby little theatre, and so it’s Mozart’s opera Cosi Fan Tutte that gets the nod. It’s as nutty an idea as is possible to imagine, and perfect given the play’s setting. No one can sing, one can hardly speak – all are damaged and apparently incapable of any kind of cooperative activity. Young Lewis (‘Jerry’ to Roy’s ‘Martin’) is clearly out of his depth.
‘Putting on a show’ plays are ready-made for comedy. Typically we are treated to agonising (hysterical) auditions; shambolic (hysterical) rehearsals and, finally, awful (hysterically awful) performances. There are often great one-liners and in-jokes for the theatre crowd so there’s a lot to laugh at. By the way, the little theatre that designer Hugh O’Connor creates in the big room at the Roundhouse is just delightful. Cosi is no different in this regard, but there’s a whole lot more going on.
One of the great strengths of Nowra’s play is its ability not only to make us laugh but also to make us feel the hurt of those we’re laughing at. Cosi also makes plain the importance of so much we take for granted. As we watch the hapless troupe and their director grope and stumble around it’s clear that they are, perhaps for the first time ever, rediscovering what it means to be useful. No longer isolated they come together squabbling, arguing points of view finding a kind of collective wisdom and joy on the fly.
This is not the first nor will it be the last play to showcase the theatre’s power to rehearse human potential amongst even the most disenfranchised. I’m reminded of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good – set in early colonial Sydney and based upon a real event. It’s a work in a far more sombre key but, as the convicts and their jailers come together in the chaos – some might say madhouse – of Botany Bay to rehearse another classic, The Recruiting Officer for the King’s birthday celebrations, they too experience the transcendental power of role-play. By the end of the few hours traffic of the stage, the play’s figures have, in some way, been given a voice, reconstructed by the experience of camaraderie towards a sense of self worth and wellness, fleeting as that may be.
David Berthold has cast this production with actors who are skilled at balancing comic business and pathos. Jennifer Flowers‘ Ruth is a beautifully finessed, bittersweet construction. Ms Flowers attention to detail is a joy to watch.
Fools are hard to play and the pivotal role of the irrepressible Roy – a theatre-wise jester and the ‘producer’ of the play – is in the safest pair of hands with Trevor Stuart, an experienced actor and a superb clown.
Jessica Marais (making her La Boite debut as girlfriend Lucy and Julie the junkie), James Stewart (Henry), Aaron Davison (‘go burn a cat’ Doug) and Amy Ingram whose Cherry is a comic monster – scary and loveable by turn – form the members of the asylum and the cast of the play within the play. They are joined by Anthony Standish who plays the brain-fried muso Zac. Mr Standish has a busy night playing three characters; in addition to Zac, he plays the insufferable Nick and the smug Justin perhaps the most broadly drawn of Cosi‘s cast of characters.
David Berthold’s stages and structures his production to reflect the theatricalism that informs the work. Actors move smoothly into position as scenes are punctuated by dynamic lighting from Ben Hughes, while a Mozartian soundscape from designer Samuel Boyd neatly organises the tempo-rhythms of the play.
If you have never seen Louis Nowra’s Cosi, then do go and see why it is one of the most produced and admired plays on the Australian stage. If you do know it, then go again and cheer for Lewis and Roy, Cherry and Henry, Zac, Ruth and Julie as they come together and do the impossible. Plus Mozart …