Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Nov 1 – Dec 14, 2019
Playwright: Louis Nowra
Director: Sarah Goodes
Cast: Gabriel Fancourt, Esther Hannaford, Glenn Hazeldine, Bessie Holland, Sean Keenan, Robert Menzies, Rahel Romahn, Katherine Tonkin, George Zhao
Images by Jeff Busby
Theatre director Lewis finds himself at a mental asylum, not as a patient, but as a facilitator for a one-night-only staging of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, starring clients of the home. This is 1972, many years before deinstitutionalisation had begun, and the personalities Lewis meets are varied in capacities, but uniformly charming. Louis Nowra’s Così is a 1992 comedy with a premise that remains intriguing, but much of its humour has lost its lustre. We have learned to regard mental illness with a diminished sense of alienation, and characters in the play have lost their sense of otherness accordingly, causing many of its jokes to feel archaic.
The production is directed by Sarah Goodes, who does extensive work to reflect a modern sensibility in her iteration of Così. While it does provide an updated sense of cultural appropriateness, with a renewed perspective of people with mental health challenges, we discover that there is little at its heart that truly resonates for today’s audiences. Nevertheless, it is a smartly designed show, with Dale Ferguson’s set and Jonathon Oxlade’s costumes providing a valuable sense of playfulness. Lights by Niklas Pajanti, along with Chris Williams’ music, keep the action jaunty and energised.
Actor Sean Keenan is convincing as the unassuming and somewhat meek Lewis, a sturdy presence who lets his colourful counterparts occupy our attention. Unofficial ringmaster Roy is played by Robert Menzies, who is powerful in the role, and effective in having us invest in his passions for Mozart and classical opera. Bessie Holland is unforgettable as the brassy Cherry, impressive in her ability to deliver big laughs, even with Nowra’s dubious dialogue. Similarly charismatic is Rahel Romahn, consistently and effortlessly funny as Doug the pyromaniac, setting the stage alight at every appearance.
In Così fan tutte, people pretend to be somebody else to discover truths about themselves. Così too, features playacting, with patients of the asylum masquerading as characters in an opera, as though on a recess from their real lives. Individuals can come to new understandings of themselves, when they experience distance from their own existences. Art allows us to step out, and observe the world from a different perspective, which is an immense benefit for all of us who forget the diminutiveness of being, and the inanity of any ego.