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The triumph of art

Over its 26-year history, Così has proven that art has the power to transform lives.

By Faran Martin

Così is one of three semi-autobiographical plays written by acclaimed Australian playwright, Louis Nowra. All three plays share the central protagonist Lewis, as a fictitious characterisation of Nowra, and echo the political climate of their setting.

The “Lewis” trilogy begins with Summer of the Aliens, depicting a 14-year-old Lewis and his coming-of-age in a Melbourne housing commission in the 60s. In Così, Lewis appears as a university graduate who takes a job at a so-called mental institution in 1971, while he figures out what he wants to do with his life. The final instalment, This Much is True, shows Lewis as an older man living in inner city Sydney, mixing with an unlikely group of fringe-dwellers who gather in a Kings Cross pub and impact each other like family.

Summer of the Aliens was first staged as a play by MTC in 1992 at the Russell Street Theatre, with Nowra himself playing the role of Narrator. At the same time, Così was premiering at Belvoir in Sydney, starring Barry Otto and Ben Mendelsohn, who would go on to star in the film version in 1996. The production put Nowra in high demand.

Così tells the story of a young Lewis attempting to direct a play, which is overturned by one patient, the unrelenting Roy, who has his heart set on presenting Mozart’s opera Così Fan Tutte. There are just a few minor set-backs to overcome, beginning with a theatre on the verge of collapse, through to working with a cast who cannot sing or speak Italian.

The autobiographical undercurrent in Così comes from Nowra’s decision as a young man to work at the Mont Park Asylum, which had housed both of his grandmothers and sat within a stone’s throw of the housing commission where he grew up.

Così first appeared on MTC’s stage in 1994, with Barry Otto reprising the role of Roy, adding Pamela Rabe and Nadine Garner to the host of actors who have brought these complex and honest characters to life. Indeed, Così, in its many re-inventions, has drawn numerous notable actors under its spell, with the 1996 film featuring Jackie Weaver, Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths, David Wenham and Colin Hay, alongside Mendelsohn, Otto and Rabe in career-defining roles.

The enduring appeal of this uniquely Australian comedy could be attributed to the thoughtful rendering of human frailty, vulnerability and difference present in each character. Nowra focuses on the patients’ ability to believe in themselves, their fears and doubts, as well as their joy, self-discovery and coming together as an ensemble to bring a challenging – albeit slightly modified – opera to life. Equally, Così is a story about Lewis managing to overcome his own insecurities and the social pressures that afflict him.

Twenty-four years after MTC first staged Così, MTC Associate Director Sarah Goodes takes the reins of this Australian classic in a brand new production starring Katherine Tonkin, Hunter Page-Lochard and Esther Hannaford.

‘Many people have grown up watching Così either on stage or on film, or even performing in it,’ Goodes says. ‘The opportunity to revive this play in Melbourne where it is set is so exciting – to celebrate who we are, how far we have come and to remind us of the power and importance of art in our lives.’

Così plays at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner from 30 April—8 June.

Published on 19 December 2018

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