Next month the Kew Courthouse Arts Association will be presenting a production of Cosi, a play by one of Australia’s leading playwrights Louis Nowra. Cosi is an Australian classic – it is studied in schools across the country, and it has also been made into a successful film. It is refreshing to see a theatre company producing work from our own roots, a notion endorsed by the production’s Director, David Lawson-Smith, who strongly believes in the importance of “performing Australian works for Australian audiences”.

Nowra describes: “The time is 1971. The play is set in a Melbourne mental institution.” Nowra writes in a time of intense social change in Australia which creates an ideal backdrop for the allegorical decisions his characters must face about what is and isn’t important by the end of the play. Lawson-Smith explains that “the Vietnam War and the reaction against it are very present in the play, as is feminism. We are attempting to use costuming to capture and evoke the feel of the period”. Lawson-Smith also believes that because “Cosi is set in Melbourne; it provides an immediate resonance with local audiences”.

Lawson-Smith describes “Nowra's treatment of mental patients as people of value and dignity who deal with love and loss like everyone” as being the initial appeal for him to direct Cosi. Coming from a strong operatic background, Lawson-Smith was also drawn to the opera-within-a-play structure. “I love that the play contrasts the treatment love though ‘high art’ (opera) which sees the frivolity of love, with supposed ‘low art’ (mental hospital patients) who take love very seriously”.

“I've always thought that love was being foolish and stupid. It's about being on the edge and I like being on the edge. It's not divine madness like some people think, there's no such thing as divine madness, madness is just madness. Love is hallucinating without drugs.”
― Louis Nowra, Così

Lawson-Smith describes the “large cast of people who are mostly portraying mental illnesses” as the largest challenge when approaching the text. “In keeping with Nowra's intent of dignity and accuracy for the patients, I discussed the text and characters in depth with a consulting psychiatrist. The cast have worked hard understanding their characters and their illnesses”.

Actor Ben Stanford, who plays protagonist Lewis Riley, describes his character as a “recent university graduate who agrees to direct a play with patients from a mental institution. At first, Lewis shares the same values as his friends Nick and Lucy; that love is unimportant compared to politics. However, during the time he spends with the patients Lewis experiences a turning point in his understanding and perception of people. By the end of the play Lewis learns to appreciate love and friendship over war and politics.”

What Stanford finds most appealing about the role is “the emphasis on reaction, and the vast number of challenges Lewis finds himself facing. In one moment, Lewis is fearing for his life while a deranged pyromaniac rants about burning cats, and in the next he is aggressively flirted with by a female patient. Being able to explore these vast arrays of emotions and strange circumstances is very enjoyable”.

Stanford believes that “one of the greatest strengths of Nowra’s play is the eclectic nature of the characters and the situations they find themselves in. It’s always great to be able to play off such striking personalities, and I think the other actors have brought their own unique interpretations and styles, which has been both instructive and entertaining”.

When asked what he hoped audiences would take from the Kew Courthouse Arts Association production of Cosi, Lawson-Smith replied that he hoped that the “production makes our audience happy and sad. I hope we realise Nowra's wonderful characters sufficiently to have people relate to them and savour their tasty flavours”.

Directed by David Lawson-Smith
7 – 8 & 12 – 15 June 8pm, Sun 9 & 16 June 5pm
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