‘Cosi’ was written 1992 by the Melbourne-born author and librettist, the legendary Louis Nowra, when he was 42. This brilliant, black comedy is by a new theatrical company, W.M.L. an abbreviation of ‘What’s my line?’ It has bravely gathered a team of mixed theatrical experience, a couple having never been on stage before, through to actors who have a wealth of experience but have been ‘resting’ (their own choice) for several years, the result was amazing.
The new, impecunious company were then faced with finding somewhere economic to perform. They learned that Curtin Student Guild, at the request of Theatre Arts members, had recently formed a theatre club, which even non-students could join – if they first joined the Guild – and the Guild had negotiated a sensible rate for using the 80-seat New Hayman Theatre.
This two-hour production, managed by Jack Wilson, ran at the New Hayman Theatre, building 302, Curtin University Bentley campus, nightly from 13th July to Saturday 15th July. There were a couple of afternoon matinées (how can a ‘matinee’ – a ‘morning show’ – be in the afternoon?).
The scene is 1990 in a burnt out theatre in the grounds of a mental hospital. The set comprises the matt black, rear wall of the stage and black drapes on the wings. There are few major props (Sophie Paice) such as an upright piano, but lots of food for Lewis. Evangalyn Little’s costumes have been perfectly selected for the wearers’ characters and the period.
Stuart Williamson’s lighting design produced most convincing off set, fire effects; Jack Bengough operated the lighting. The successful sound effects were designed and operated by Sarah Connolly.
Straight from university, and now stone-broke, theatre graduate, Lewis (Sam Ireland) has been hired by brusque social worker, Justine (Kiri Siva), to work at a local mental home. Lewis thinks that these mentally subnormal residents will be a push over to handle, but one of the first patients he meets is an older, silent man; previously a lawyer, he is Henry (Peter ‘Pear’ Carr).
When Lewis announces that he is going to put on a religious play and wants them to attend an audition, there is an instant revolution. He soon succumbs to the pleas of a manic-depressive with a passion for theatre, Roy (Geoffrey Leeder). Roy begs to stage his lifelong favourite, Mozart’s ‘Così fan tutte’ as it encompasses all of life. However, the others in the group announce they cannot sing and besides, no one speaks Italian. Now stressed Lewis is relieved to see the arrival of his disinterested girlfriend, Lucy (Alicia Turner) with whom he is in a strained relationship. Lucy is with Lewis’s best mate, Nick (Max Gipson) who offers a few sensible suggestions for staging the production.
A mad pyromaniac, Doug (Jesse Hislop), who loves sexual innuendo, wastes no time in questioning Lucy about her love life. Lewis soon learns that his cast all have their own individual charms. In the case of randy, food obsessed Cherry (Nicole George), her crush shows him ‘love’ is not a thing of the past.
The 200-year-old opera about love and war, demonstrates the double standards of today’s life. It shows that the ‘pristine’ men can be more permissive and unfaithful – hinting at Lucy and Nick’s modern day infidelity. As Henry, who misses his father – a Vietnam Veteran – points out, some people deserve to be betrayed. Lewis finds himself romantically drawn to drug dependent Julie (Amber Gilmour). Julie’s close friend, Ruth (Ashleigh Ryan), suffers from an obsessive-compulsive disorder and has major trouble distinguishing between illusion and reality. Julie thinks men make women feel bad, to make them feel more empowered.
When the rehearsal begins, the drugged-up, spaced out pianist, Zac (Ellis B. Kinnear) gave hints of how he and the other inmates could manipulate their treatment by his determination to introduce an unusual instrument of his own.
It is a common acting mistake to assume that mental patients are stupid. This play’s cast truly inhabited their characters, giving them their dignity and depth, rather than simply taking the easy approach of acting foolishly themselves. The cast also clearly depicted how withdrawn people tend to love music, by reacting positively to it. Even the most disturbed inmate could spot Lewis’s incompetence as a director.
The highly experienced director, Stephen Carr, is also a lecturer in theatre at Curtin. The juicy rumour was that Stephen slept with one of the virgin female leads, and then I discovered that Nicole is his wife, and that she, like Jesse, is a stage ‘virgin’. This couple gave absolutely amazing first time performances.
Black comedies only work when there is a strong message to be made. They give the audience a chance to laugh at difficult, sensitive situations. Nowra’s ‘Cosi’ is an remarkable piece of writing, packed with despair, innuendos and humour.
Another common mistake in the theatre is to over dramatise the pathos. This story has tremendous depth, which the director and his exemplary, superbly chosen, cast really understood and lucidly depicted. One’s heart and a few tears went out to Geoff Leeder as Roy, when he thought his choice of opera had been rejected, throwing him into a deep depression; and with ‘Pear’ Carr as Henry, who, each time infidelity was depicted in the opera, suffered on behalf of his heroic, serviceman father. Clever, solid performances.
The variety of acting parts ranged from ‘totally hyper’ to withdrawn, and from bullying to one of complete insecurity. From the opening seconds, the teamwork was amazing as the powerful chemistry flowed naturally.
So successful has this outstanding production been that WML are now taking the show on the road touring. Merriden is going to be their first port of call, but no doubt, Margaret River and Albany will welcome them too.
On an opening night of a new company’s first play, I usually attend prepared to be generous and slightly sympathetic with my review. Such was this production’s quality, that I reviewed the performance as if it was an established, professional company – no concessions. This was a flawless, first class production from an exciting, brand new company.