The line between madness and sanity has long been a subject of art, but Louis Nowra’s Cosi, set in Australia in the later days of the Vietnam War, is perhaps the funniest example of it.
It is the story of Lewis, a university student who agrees, in a moment of madness, to direct a play performed by mental patients. A difficult enough task made harder; the play is Mozart’s opera Cosi Fan Tutti – but the patients neither sing nor speak Italian. What follows is a powerful lesson for both mad and sane, in trying to deal with the new, the unexpected and the different. It is both thought-provoking and dark. It is also bloody funny.
The strength of Cosi is its ensemble of strange, darkly hilarious characters. The collection of ‘mad’ characters – bipolar opera buff Roy (Colin Morely), anxious, agonised Henry (Christopher Farrell), unpredictable obsessive Cherry (Tammy Weller), obsessive perfectionist Ruth (Belinda Campbell), gender-bending pyromaniac Doug (Jennifer Piper) and doped-up maniac musician Zac (Matthew Dorning) – are all strong presences on stage. With larger-than-life characters like that, it’s not difficult.
The ‘sane’ characters have a harder time getting through amidst all the madness. David Price does a good job as Lewis, bringing a strong sense of youthful naivety and uncertainty, but when pitted against the antics of the inmates, he comes across as rather a non-entity – earnest but unexciting. Likewise, “junkie” Julie (Kate Allnut), Lewis’s love interest, is so quietly acted as to be unnoticeable in ensemble scenes. While her ‘madness’ comes across well when the ensemble is absent, the chemistry with Lewis is rather subdued. Aside from Matthew Dorning’s portrayal of Lewis’s friend Nick, who comes across as a sort of sleazy wannabe Antipodean Trotsky, the other ‘sane’ characters (social worker Justin (Dorning again) and Lewis’s girlfriend Lucy (Allnut again)) make little impact.
A lot of it is simply due to the way the characters are written – the larger-than-life characters make it hard for the quieter characters to shine. In any case, the contrast underlines the difference between those inside the asylum and those outside, and makes you consider just what madness is.
This is an entertaining production, well-staged and well-performed. The theatre space is small and intimate, with seating on three sides, and the staging is simple and effective.
West Independent Theatre’s production of Cosi is a well-executed and faithful staging of the play, and well worth the train trip.