Photos – Tim Elliott
“They’re coming to take me away” begins Louis Nowra’s two hour play, set in 1971 in a Melbourne mental institution. Cosi was written almost twenty years ago and will undoubtedly remain a classic in the Australian theatrical repertoire. And there is much to like about this Eagle’s Nest production. The pace is excellent and there is a poignant mix of humour and pathos. From the large scale suffering that occurred in the Vietnam war (the backdrop of the play) to the terrible deprivation that occurred in mental institutions in that era, to the minutiae of the jealousies, violence and insecurities that play out between individuals, the balance of heartbreak with comedy works well.
Cosi explores the big issues of the era it’s set in, themes that are still current today: how war polarizes opinions, the stigma that surrounds mental illness, womens’ rights. Before the 70s, people suffering from mental health issues were sent to asylums to be out of sight so they wouldn’t bring shame on their family and community. A lack of knowledge and insight into mental health meant people with any sort of mental ‘illness’ were often admitted, including alcoholics and drug users. Patients were often admitted secretly, which fuelled the social stigma attached to mental illness. The remnants of this are often still very much seen and felt today. So while some audiences may see Cosi and think it an exaggeration, it would be wise to remember it’s semi-autobiographical and there are many people still around to attest to its authenticity.
Cosi is an actor’s play. There can be innumerable strobe lights and quirky effects, but if the cast is weak, no amount of artistic directorial vision will save it. In this production the stronger members of the cast just manage to pull the weaker members over the line. It’s an enjoyable and engaging two hours, but it doesn’t reach the heights it could. This is due, in part, to the performance aspect, but also to some naivety on the director’s part. The lighting and staging are good, but, oddly, there are some blocking issues and several occurrences where the director hasn’t managed all the actors on stage well: some characters speak normally while others whisper to one another in the background. Not only is this distracting and unnecessary, it’s a mark of an unseasoned director.
Still, “an opera with no piano performed by mad people” is always going to be entertaining. NIDA graduate Gabrielle Scawthorn (playing nymphomaniac Cherry), Mel Dodge (as Ruth, who suffers from OCD and has a penchant for counting things), and Joseph Appleton (Doug the pyromaniac) ensure this is so. Scawthorn is without question the star of the show. She lifts the energy of the entire production. Phil Zachariah, playing the withdrawn Henry, and Letitia Sutherland, as the drug addicted Julie, also deserve a mention; their performances are touching and subtle. Chris Gaffney in the ‘lead’ role of the manic depressive Roy unfortunately rushed most of his dialogue in this opening night performance; there was a lack of thought and meaning beneath the lines. Harry Tseng, playing social worker Justin, delivers the only song in the play and has a truly exquisite singing voice.
This is not a production without flaws, but overall it’s entertaining, thought provoking, and worth seeing.
Eagles Nest Theatre presents
by Louis Nowra
Director Alan Chambers
Venue: Studio 2, Northcote Town Hall, Northcote, VIC.
Dates: 12 – 28 May, 2011
Bookings: 0415153824 or eaglesnest.eventix.com.au