The venue is a theatre that smells of "burnt wood and mould", the cast are patients with very diverse needs, and the play is Mozart's Così fan tutte.
BATS Theatre Company brings Louis Nowra's semi-autographical play Cosi to its audiences later this month. The play is set in 1971 in a Melbourne Mental Hospital and Nowra juxtaposes the machinations of the inmates with the emotional charge of the Vietnam War protestors inhabiting the city streets.
Forty odd years on and the play is still attracting directors, actors and audiences. So much so that director Sharon Maine is now on her second visit with the play having directed it for Gemco Players last year. "What attracted me to Cosi when I saw it for the first time more than 10 years ago was that the characters were vibrant, the action was unpredictable and crazy and it had a wonderful mix of humour and sadness," explains Maine. "It is a wonderfully written black comedy. Having seen the production many times since then and having read the script numerous times I was attracted to the plays themes. I also read Louis Nowra's autobiography The Twelfth of Never which provides a biographical background for many of the events in the play and this also drove my interest in the piece."
Being able to direct the same play twice brings many benefits which may assist to eliminate some of the loose threads that some directors find slip through in the first interpretation. There is, of course, the other side which speaks more about finding the freshness and spontaneity of the new production and not relying on what was done before. Mane has found both to be true. "The biggest challenge has been to not just recreate the production from last year but to create a new production," states Maine. "I have been challenged by working with different actors and designers who have brought their own sensibilities, backgrounds and artistic tastes to the work. This has resulted in some different themes being emphasized, some different approaches to characterization and a different look to some of the settings and costumes. It has been our challenge to make the production lively and exciting and fresh."
In his play Nowra creates many larger than life characters particularly in the form of Roy, a manic-depressive with a penchant for the theatre, and the somewhat skewed Cherry who is addicted to food as well as Lewis, the play's protagonist. It is easy to create caricatures however the truth of this play lies in its foundation of authenticity. Whether it be the dubious treatments, the interaction of the inmates or their particular curiosities – all must be portrayed with absolute truth. Maine agrees and says: "The biggest challenge in this production has been to make it credible and real. I believe the world presented in the play and the characters inhabiting that world must be tangible and solid. Amidst the mayhem, I want the audience to be able to believe in the characters – their needs and actions, their struggle against their disabilities and their final triumph. I want the characters to come across as real people. It was very important for myself and each cast member to research mental institutions of the period and to analysis mental illnesses and the methods of treatment of the time. I asked all actors to use the research to diagnose their character and look at other behaviours and effects of the illness. We also had health professionals come into rehearsal to give us feedback on whether the characters came across convincingly as patients."
While there are many comic moments, there are also many dangerous as well as poignant ones. Nowra's patients have great personalities – even the more withdrawn inmates like Ruth and Henry – so there is a sense that this is a theatrical representation but on the whole Nowra makes no excuse for his characters or their behaviour – they are who they are. Maine feels strongly about the messages the play contains and feels it to be, amongst other things, a champion for mental illness. "Society's attitude to the mentally ill is changing all the time. However, I believe mental illness is still looked upon with abhorrence and lack of understanding by many which justifies presenting a play that treats the subject in a humane and sympathetic light."
Bats production of Cosi promises to be an invigorating celebration of dysfunction and difference, packed full of earthy Australian one-liners. This production is not to be missed by those who are new to the piece and those who love and know it well.
July 20 – July 29
BATS Theatre Company Brunt St Cranbourne