Absurdist but with heart, Louis Nowra’s Cosi is fun to watch but appears to have aged. The setting is the Vietnam War era – 1971 to be specific – and the location is a mental institution. So, yes there’s a little bit of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest about it.
A young man, Lewis (Sean Keenan), fresh out of university where he has directed the odd play, takes a job at an asylum, where he is to work with patients to help motivate them by staging their own production. He has free rein to choose whatever he wants. While he has a relatively straightforward play in mind, a strong-willed inmate, Roy (Robert Menzies), is intent on staging the Mozart opera Cosi Fan Tutte. The fact that it is not in English and that he and his fellow inmates don’t sing, act or speak Italian doesn’t deter him in the least.
Gradually, the director wins over each of those housed at the psychiatric institution, but the journey is hardly smooth sailing, not the least because in their midst is a serial pyromaniac, Doug (Rahel Romahn). Already their preparation space is a charred room with water coming in through the ceiling (an evocative set design by Dale Ferguson). Each of the patients has their own peccadilloes and the director has to navigate a safe passage through them, which isn’t easy. His goal is to mount a performance in front of the other inmates. In the process, he learns about love and commitment.
Infused with hijinks, Cosi is all about exaggerated, larger than life characters put into a ridiculous situation. Let’s face it, most of them are mad, some are sad and others simply bad. None of that matters while you sit there watching and appreciating the stage craft of a highly talented cast.
Several stand out. Robert Menzies all but steals the show, as the real instigator of the drama, Roy, who threatens to take ownership away from the director. Bessie Holland is big, bold and brassy as Cherry, who has a huge crush on the director and is more than a little miffed at her love rival. That role of drug addict Julie (as well as that of the director’s girlfriend Lucy) goes to Esther Hannaford (the star of the musical Beautiful), who may not have a huge role, but doesn’t put a foot wrong.
Then there’s the stuttering and timid lawyer Henry (Glenn Hazeldine), who has strong views about the Vietnam War that run directly contrary to those of the director’s roommate, Nick (Gabriel Fancourt). Fancourt is also cast as a catatonic patient, Zac, who prefers Wagner to Mozart and is the musician for the asylum’s production. The final cast member is social worker Justin (George Zhao), who is the man ultimately responsible for Lewis.
While the slapstick humour is still funny, Cosi no longer has the same impact it did when it first plied the stage. Directed by Sarah Goodes, it is playing at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner until 8 June 2019.
* I saw the first preview performance of the show.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti (Emotionworks Cut Opera) – theatre review
- Lazarus (The Production Company) – theatre review
- Noises Off (MTC) – theatre review
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.