Così: Where Laughter is the Best Medicine

Così, recently performed by Queen’s College at the Union House Theatre, was inspired in the early 1970’s when university graduate Louis Nowra found himself directing a musical staged by the inmates of Melbourne’s Mount Park Asylum. Nowra wrote himself into the character of the protagonist Lewis, a young impassioned director hired to stage a play with the patients of a mental facility as part of a therapeutic program intended to “keep them interested and give them something to do”.

Roy, a patient and manic-depressive visionary is adamant that they will perform Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte. This is an ambitious choice; Così is in Italian which none of the patients speak, much less sing. Indeed, some of them can hardly speak at all. Nevertheless, Lewis begins rehearsals with his cast comprised of a pyromaniac, a confused realist with OCD, a pianist addicted to lithium who detests Mozart, a stuttering ex-lawyer, a junkie, and a knife brandishing romantic. Throughout rehearsals the already fire-gutted hall is set alight, the power is unstable, utterances of “Macbeth” are taken to have cursed the show, the pyromaniac sets a fire and is sent off to the ‘confined’ ward, and no one is quite sure whether they’re dosed up too much or not enough to get through the performance. Despite this, Lewis calmly and steadily leads the troupe to the stage in an event that triumphs over the unreliable mind and leaves the performers dazzled by their own brilliance.

Taking on characters that are mentally, physically and or emotionally handicapped is both a great challenge and responsibility, especially for a group of young performers. Finding consistency in the portrayal of essentially unstable characters was, in this Queen’s College production of Così, sometimes a struggle. While mania and erratic behavior may appear random or spontaneous, it is imperative that these episodes appear as born of the character in order to not simply present a caricature.

Without a doubt, Sam Williams as Roy gave the stand out performance and beautifully embodied Roy’s keen and urgent mannerisms that were both frantic and deliberate. His blunt and uninhibited facade was wonderfully cracked allowing fragments of vulnerability to surprise and endear him to us. Tash Redhill as Ruth, and Max Wilson as Doug, were also very enjoyable. Redhill methodically ticked through Ruth’s obsessive movements and her desire to both understand and be understood was palpable. Doug’s confession to Lewis about his pyromania “standing on front of the fire, full face of ecstasy with a gigantic hard on” in such a quotidian manner was wonderfully eerie.

Unfortunately, passion, lust or tension within the romantic relationships, especially that between Lewis (Miles Brennan) and Julie (Bella Froebel) was lacking. Nowra’s text creates ample opportunity to build to the moment when the two kiss, and the weakness of this relationship dampened the impact of the breakup between Lewis and Lucy (Indi Taylor) and the significance of the developing relationship between Lucy and Nick (Robbie Lenigas).

The set was reminiscent of an old, damp church hall and while this did not change for the duration of the show, it created, along with the detailed lighting and sound designs, a welcome frame for the action. Additionally, Zara Antonino is to be commended on her efforts as costume designer as her work effectively reflected and enhanced the unique personalities of each of the characters.

The choice of Così for a College production is undoubtedly an ambitious undertaking, nevertheless, Queens College’s production took advantage of Nowra’s unique and unpretentious Australian humor and wit, to provide moments that were truly heartwarming.

Sophie McCrae

Queen’s College’s production of Così ran from the 20th – 22nd of September in the Union House Theatre.

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