Melbourne Theatre Company: Così review

Much loved, oft-produced Australian comedy Così is treated to a rather lavish revival in this co-production from Melbourne Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company.

Based on his own experience, Louis Nowra’s 1992 play neatly balances broad comedy with human drama, presenting a quirky set of characters that are as eccentric as they are endearing. Recent university graduate Lewis (a holdover from Nowra’s Summer of the Aliens) takes on the project of directing a play at a Melbourne asylum. Set in 1971, the action at the asylum is framed against reports of escalating protests over the war in Vietnam.

As well as presenting the relative simplicity of the now bygone era of the early 1970s, Cosìis infused with a reassuring sense of sunny optimism, leaving the audience with a welcome glow of warmth and good will. Early moments in the play suggest that the content may be unsuited to current puritanical standards of political correctness, and yet we find ourselves laughing with rather than at the all too self-aware mental patients, and the overt sexism deriving from Mozart/Da Ponte opera Così fan tutte is countered with arguments relating to fidelity of both genders.

Director Sarah Goodes has assembled a splendid set of actors, heightening the believability of the characters by avoiding star casting and focusing solely on suitability for the roles. Initial exposition is slow, but once the seven patients are established the comedy takes flight. Goodes’ sensitive direction grounds the characters in realism, so that even their most outrageous actions play out against a bubbling undercurrent of poignancy. Goodes is particularly successful at establishing the asylum as a living world; pre-existing connections between the patients are thoroughly believable, providing a ready springboard to early comedy.

With a running time of 160 minutes (including 20-minute interval),Così is on the long side for a comedy. Goodes balances the tides of energy with flair, delivering a terrific climatic sequence as the patients finally perform their beautifully bastardised version of Così fan tutte.The play’s length allows the audience to form strong bonds with the characters. The “where are they now” ending is a trifle indulgent, and yet rewards the audience’s absorption in the play.

Set designer Dale Ferguson captures the oppressive sense of the asylum with windowless dark metal walls and ceiling of the institution’s theatre, all of which are curled and streaked from past fire damage. The hidden backdrop for the play, which rises up from the stage itself, is an ingenious piece of theatrical engineering.

Niklas Pajanti’s lighting is a key aspect of the design. The set contains enough slamming doors for a French farce, and behind each is a glowing white light that suggests the clinical sterility of the wards beyond the rehearsal room. Various props are embedded with lights that glow onto the actors’ faces to striking effect.

Costumes, by Jonathon Oxlade, are true to the 1970s without parody, and are a significant aspect in the clear delineation of each character. Costumes for the play-within-the-play are genuinely funny, with Ruth’s fluffy pink hat and Cherry’s homage to Wagner heroines being highlights.

Already a screen veteran, young actor Sean Keenan makes a smooth transition to the stage in the massive, and yet ultimately rather thankless, role of Lewis. Keenan exudes a natural, understated level of charm, graciously allowing his character to blend into the background as the enlivened antics of the patients take the spotlight. Saddled with the somewhat clunky subplot of fidelity in Lewis’ love life, Keenan focuses on Lewis’ relationship with the patients, deftly conveying the inner conflict of an inexperienced young man in an incredibly challenging setting.

In the key role of manic-depressive Roy, impassioned instigator of the performance project, experienced actor Robert Menzies delivers a heartfelt performance that keeps one foot squarely on the ground despite the extraordinary energy levels on show. Roy’s judgemental asides are devilishly funny, and the sequence in which he is deeply affected by the portrayal of electroshock therapy is one of the play’s most moving moments.

Bessie Holland is an absolute delight as food-obsessed patient Cherry, delivering wickedly funny line readings and well-judged physical comedy. When Cherry finally takes to the stage as the maid Despina, Holland’s “bad acting” is absolutely hysterical.

Katherine Tonkin immerses herself in the role of obsessive-compulsive Ruth, scoring laughs in Ruth’s behaviour and actions beyond those prescribed in the dialogue. Glenn Hazeldine carefully calibrates Henry’s involvement in proceedings, cultivating an air of sorrowful mystery from which his character gradually emerges.

Gabriel Fancourt establishes a pair of characters with distinction, switching effectively from uptight activist Nick to drug addled pianist Zac. Esther Hannaford plays a pair of young women who are deliberately similar, providing a connection between Lewis’ girlfriend Lucy and drug-dependent patient Julie, with whom Lewis develops an attraction. In a particularly natural performance, Hannaford keeps Julie subtly on the sidelines until more of her personal life unfolds.

In an auspicious Melbourne Theatre Company debut, Rahel Romahn imbues unbalanced pyromaniac Doug with such a likeable larrikin streak that the character becomes endeared to the audience despite the horror of his past crimes. George Zhao comes across as a little young and fresh to be the experienced asylum social worker Justin, although his youth is an asset in terms of explaining the character’s as yet unsullied good cheer in working in a very challenging environment.

Given the resources regularly lavished on revivals of international classic plays, this season of modern Australian classic Cosìis as welcome as it is deserving.

In an extraordinarily synergistic piece of arts programming, Opera Australia presents Così fan tutte in Melbourne May 14-25 2019.

Così plays at The Sumner, Southbank Theatre, Melbourne until 8 June 2018.

The Così program can be read online.

Photos: Jeff Busby

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