Louis Nowra’s semi-autobiographical play Così has, after some twenty-five plus years, become a classic of the Australian stage, and for rightful reasons. Combining a snapshot of our country’s political turmoil towards the end of the Vietnam War, with a joyous tale of persistence and the healing power of performance, it’s full of life affirming moments.
Set in 1971 where protagonist Lewis (Sean Keenan) – a barely disguised facsimile of Nowra – is university educated and out of work, so when the questionable opportunity comes along to direct a play at a Melbourne mental hospital as a form of rehabilitation for the patients, his need for money outweighs his fear of both failure and personal injury. Lumbered with a pyromaniac, a junkie, a manic-depressive, an obsessive-compulsive and a number of other basket cases, Lewis is wildly out of his depth trying to wrangle his rag-tag ‘cast’. So when patient Roy (Robert Menzies) takes control of the situation and insists that they stage Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Lewis finds himself bundled along trying to direct a group of non-singing, non-Italian speaking amateurs in how to perform the operatic masterpiece.
Nowra creates a wonderfully diverse troupe characters that are full of humour and invention. There’s food obsessed Cherry, played with aggressive determination and glorious vulnerability by Bessie Holland, who becomes equally obsessed and possessive of Lewis. Nervous tic suffering former lawyer Henry, delivered in a heart-breaking endearing performance by Glenn Hazeldine. Overly medicated pianist and nominal musical director Zac, played with excellent definition by Gabriel Fancourt as he does double duty as Lewis’ war protesting frenemy Nick. The cripplingly specific OCD sufferer Ruth, solidly portrayed by Katherine Tonkin, and Doug the lewd and crude arsonist with a penchant for burning cats, in another excellent performance by STC regular Rahel Romahn.
Robert Menzies is perfectly cast as Mozart loving depressive Roy, who drives his director through casting, staging and recital, just as Menzies pushes along the intensity of performance, creating a foundation on which the rest of the production is built.
All these colourful characters make it hard for the straight-man role of Lewis to make the same impact on the stage, but in the first act of this production, Sean Keenan seems swamped by everyone else around him. It might be a case of first night nerves, but Lewis needs to provide more of an impression from the outset in order for the story not to feel disappointingly lacklustre. By the time Lewis invites his uni friend Nick (Gabriel Fancourt) to observe rehearsals and offer feedback, prompting Roy to declare him the better director, it’s like a light switches on inside Keenan and finally we see the leading man Così needs. It’s just a matter of finding that light from the beginning.
More difficult to resolve is Esther Hannaford’s stiff performance without completely revising what she’s doing, or rather not doing. Hannaford is an immensely talented performer of musical theatre and last year’s production of Twelfth Night seemed to play well to her skills, but perhaps the recited nature of Shakespeare disguised a lack of nuance that is immediately apparent here. Playing both of Lewis’ love-interests – the drug addicted Julie and unfaithful girlfriend Lucy – Hannaford creates no significant definition between the two characters and seems to simply yell all of Lucy’s lines.
While Director Sarah Goodes has created some lovely moments with her ensemble and made excellent use of scene changes to create wordless storytelling, she certainly still a has a task ahead of her to polish the production so it reaches its potential for the remainder of the run.
Dale Ferguson’s semi-conceptual set design with its unfolding ‘stage’ is interesting and effective, but seems somewhat disconnected with the set dressing and Jonathon Oxlade’s excellently detailed and colourful costume designs. The set’s bunt out theatre interior is peeling apart at the seams, offering Niklas Pajanti the great opportunity to expose light along with various other ambient sources in an excellent lighting design. Sound design and compositions by Chris Williams add a finely supportive soundscape.
Così is a wonderfully engaging story that this production goes some way towards delivering, but it needs refinement to truly satisfy and earn the love it deserves to receive in return.