Mental health is a tricky topic but Così is a big-hearted if not particularly sophisticated play.
Robert Menzies, Esther Hannaford, Glenn Hazeldine, Katherine Tonkin, and Sean Kennan in Così. Image: Jeff Busby.
First performed in 1992 in Sydney, Louis Nowra’s semi-autobiographical effort has enjoyed many adaptations over the decades both here and overseas, including a 1996 film with a cast of luminaries. It’s now back for another round, this time under the direction of MTC’s Associate Director Sarah Goodes.
Così is probably best described as a dark comedy and on the face of it, the premise seems absurd. A young university graduate, Lewis (Sean Keenan), directs a production of Così fan tutte in a mental asylum. Roused and wheedled into compliance by manic-depressive Roy (Robert Menzies), the motley crew go about trying to stage Mozart’s comic opera. There’s heroin addict Julie (Esther Hannaford), stutterer Henry (Glenn Hazeldine), pyromaniac Doug (Rahel Romahn), food crazy Cherry (Bessie Holland), doped-up Zac (Gabriel Fancourt) and obsessive-compulsive Ruth (Katherine Tonkin). The fact that none of them can sing a note nor speak a word of Italian makes little difference. (There is, for purists who’ve never seen any of the play’s iterations before, no real operatic singing). But Così is not about excellence in the arts; it’s about the transportive, transformative experience of losing yourself by absorption into something bigger and grander. Or as the patronising social worker Justin (George Zhao) explains to Lewis, you just have to get them out of their shells.
The narrative trajectory is fairly predictable; it’s giving nothing away to note that, of course, teamwork will triumph over adversity. Ultimately, the inmates will rally together despite disagreements and the mental and physical conditions which have landed them in an institution, not to mention other problems (cue multiple fire breakouts, switchback threats, power outage). But Nowra also includes a subplot about campus protests over the Vietnam War that feels just a little bit tacked on, didactic in tone, and is never fully explored except to place the play firmly in time and place, as well as to set up a dialectic: is it a little indulgent to devote attention to an old opera when the world is burning?
Così is not a particularly sophisticated play by any means but the ensemble cast do the best they can with the material, with Dale Ferguson’s set of a burnt grey shell of a rehearsal hall with a raised stage platform kept simple. It’s a time capsule that captures an era of institutionalised care (complete with ample drug dosages, solitary confinement and shock therapy) and Nowra inserts them all as reminders in between the hijinks and pratfalls. There is too smooth and convenient a connection between Mozart’s opera about love and fidelity spilling into real life when it comes to the “free love” 70s sexual politics.
Nonetheless, it’s a big hearted play; each character has their own turn to shine and the actors all rise to the occasion, particularly Menzies as Roy, whose zest is foil for straight man newbie director Keenan. Mental health is tricky to write a play about and sometimes there is a thin line between laughing at or with the inmates but Così is an entertaining drama within a drama.
3.5 stars ★★★☆
by Louis Nowra
Directed by Sarah Goodes
Melbourne Theatre Company, co-produced with Sydney Theatre Company
30 April-8 June 2019
Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
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