Louis Nowra’s iconic Australian work, Cosi, is set to launch into MTC’s Southbank Theatre early next month – part of his highly lauded trilogy of semi-autobiographical plays, Cosi examines and celebrates art, tolerance and the human condition as well as shining a spotlight on mental health and drug addiction. Set to the backdrop of the Vietnam war, the patients of a Melbourne mental facility are preparing to perform Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. They are untrained, unprepared and linguistically challenged but their sheer grit and determination sets them on a course of unparalleled and inspirational achievement against all odds. Nowra offers us a cast of oft beguiling, oft funny and sometimes dangerous misfits in a work that not only champions the different but acknowledges the crippling abuse that can be the by-product of neglect or apathy.
Having worked at SCT, the New Theatre, Griffin, Old Fitz and Bell Shakespeare to name a few, NIDA graduate, Gabriel Fancourt, brings his extensive experience to the MTC in dual roles: Nick: the left wing friend of protagonist Lewis and, patient, Zac, a drug dependent Wagner fan.
Read on as Fancourt discusses themes, characters, legacy, Nowra and all things Cosi.
The wave of protests surrounding our involvement in the Vietnam war is a strong backdrop for the action of the play, but it is very much that; a backdrop. The action takes place inside a theatre, with the concerns of the war feeling exterior to the main action, but also inextricable from it. Many of Nowra’s plays are set during a time of social change, and I think this gives the characters a great capacity to have strong values and beliefs. Everyone is forced to have a position and fight for their values. It’s also in times of social upheaval that the role of theatre in a society is questioned. Why do an opera about love during a time of war? Sexual and gender politics are also a strong theme of the play. Especially considering how the values and social norms speak to an audience. The play was written in the 90’s, set during the 70’s, about staging an opera written in the 18th century and we bring our own 2019 values to bear on it as we rehearse it now. I think it encourages you to think about the norms and values reflected in each period in history and how that speaks to where we are now.
You grow up as a performer taking for granted that Cosi is an iconic play. It’s part of our National Canon of works, so it’s a pleasure to tick it off the list in that sense. In a personal way, I’d say everyone has had some experience with mental health at some point in their lives, and the way that the play gives an agency and a deep sense of humanity to these characters who are disenfranchised within the institution is very important to me.
I admire Zac’s creative energy. For me he embodies pure creative inspiration, separate to any larger agenda or personal ideals, and it’s a real joy to play. And I admire Nick’s uncompromising commitment to his values in being an agent for social change.
When you play two (or more!) characters it’s important to think about what elements of yourself are present in each, and also how they differentiate from each other in a way that you wouldn’t have to think about, were you just playing one role. I enjoy the challenge in bringing two very different characters to life and being able to explore a wide range of rhythms and tempos. On a personal level, there are ways that I relate to them both and also ways that both are contradictions to me. I relate to Zac’s creative passion and Nick’s commitment to social change, but both have attitudes to women that are problematic. Part of the challenge of acting is turning up the volume on some aspects of yourself and turning others way down.
I’ve always been a fan of Nowra’s writing; the comedy always has a real edge to it. The humour really comes to life when you’re rehearsing on the floor, but it’s infused with real human moments. The characters for the most part don’t know that they’re funny, they’re just trying to achieve their goals within a challenging situation.
It’s a pleasure rehearsing a play like Cosi because it’s a real ensemble effort. Everyone has to show up or it won’t work. The energy that moves the story forward, and also the source of so much of the humour is that these characters have to work together as a group. The big group scenes are a lot of fun to play.
Come and see an incredibly funny classic Australian play that’s also wonderfully moving
April 30 – June 8
Images: Justin Ridler
Melbourne Theatre Company