We’re one week into rehearsals for La Boite’s new production of Louis Nowra’s most popular play and the walls are weeping with laughter. Not always a good sign, but let’s hope.
Once we’re on, La Boite will have produced Cosi three times in three venues in three decades. The first was in the company’s old Hale Street theatre in 1994 just two years after the Belvoir premiere, and the second was a co-production with the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in The Playhouse in 2003. Astoundingly, that was the last major professional production of the play. Now we’re in La Boite’s Roundhouse Theatre with a cast that I suspect will make this play sing.
I’ve known Louis for over 25 years. We first met in the rehearsal room of Rex Cramphorn’s premiere production of Louis’ The Golden Age for Playbox in 1985. Since then, Louis and I have become good friends. I’ve directed four premiere productions of his plays – The Jungle for Sydney Theatre Company in 1995 and the plays that made up The Boyce Trilogy for Griffin Theatre Company during 2004-06. This, however, is the first time I’ve visited a play from the early ‘90s, a period that marked a surprising shift for Louis.
Louis’ plays before then were not known for their comedy. So what a surprise Cosi was! The comic structure was brilliantly assured and the one-liners were perfectly placed. Perhaps we forgot that Louis grew up with musical comedies (his uncle, Bob Herbert, worked for JC Williamson’s), that he had directed Beaumarchais’ comic masterpiece The Marriage of Figaro for the state theatre company in Adelaide and that one of his earliest plays was about Joe Orton. When Louis arrived at Cosi, somewhere in the unconscious corners of influence sat the psychiatric farce of What the Butler Saw.
There are other senses in which the play is not so much the odd one out. There are genetic strands that connect the inmates of Cosi to the mad soldiers of Inside the Island, the lost tribe of The Golden Age and any number of outsider groups that inhabit Louis’ dramatic world. The stuttering Henry, for example, is part of a character stream that looks back to Ivan in Inner Voices and Betsheb in The Golden Age, forward to Olive in The Jungle and Victor in The Marvellous Boy, and to any number of characters in Louis’ plays who have difficulty with language.
For over 30 years Louis has asked knotty questions. How do the twin concerns of love and power connect? What is the value and cost of empire? How do the weak win? What is it like to be isolated on an island, whether it’s real or metaphoric? How does ‘madness’ operate within families, marriages and society? Is it possible to escape the genetic influence of our parents? How does one move from emotional detachment to irresistible and redefining love? Many of these questions weave through Cosi.
Cosi, of course, is a show-within-a-show. Fledgling theatre director Lewis is charged with mounting a production of Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte cast with the inmates of a mental institution. My cast is crazily good and metatheatrical fun is there to be had. Lewis is played by Benjamin Schostakowski, freshly graduated from the directors’ course at NIDA. A few years ago, he was my assistant director on a production of Così fan tutte for Opera Queensland. Thankfully, he’s a fine actor. The double role of political girlfriend and junkie flirtation is played by Jessica Marais, another NIDA graduate but better known from Packed to the Rafters and here joined by her on-screen boyfriend and off-screen fiancé James Stewart as Henry. Jennifer Flowers, yet another director in the room, plays Ruth, obsessing over production details. Trevor Stuart, who formed a trio with Geoffrey Rush and the late Bille Brown in university theatre and the early days of the Queensland Theatre Company before taking up an international life of living-on-the-edge performance art, returns to La Boite’s stage as Roy after his Helpmann Award-nominated turn as Jaques in As You Like It. All the world is indeed our stage.
Such a fabulously multifarious cast is in keeping with Louis’ wildly varied output. He writes novels, libretti, screenplays, memoirs, history and critical commentary. In fact, when Louis won The Patrick White Award late last year the judges cited his ‘prolific, passionate, principled contribution to Australian literature across many fields’. His latest work is Kings Cross: A Biography, a 600-page and completely engrossing love letter to the streets where he lives with his wonderful wife (the novelist Mandy Sayer) and to the people and histories housed (or not housed) there. It’s an indispensable expression of the most densely populated and paradoxical patch in Australia.
But that’s not all. Like many playwrights (Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Brendan Cowell), Louis is a cricket fanatic, which helped to make his 2002 book Warne’s World: A Personal Appreciation of Shane Warne so full of insight. In 2007, he gave us Bad Dreaming, a controversial book on violence in Aboriginal communities. He was one of the principal writers for the landmark, multi award-winning 2008 SBS TV documentary series First Australians. He created the TV series The Straits. He is sometimes a provocative cultural commentator, with essays appearing regularly in The Monthly and other journals. I really don’t know how he fits it all in.
But then again, his life was always sensationally and strangely full. Both his grandmothers ended up in asylums, no doubt good fodder for Cosi. His mother, who had married into the Indonesian royal family, murdered her father, who had served at Gallipoli. She would later marry a truck-obsessed, working class Australian Catholic of Irish descent – Louis’ much-absent father. When Louis had done something wrong, his mother would put him in a dress and make him walk up and down the street. At other times, she would dress him as a Dutch dyke worker, Aborigine or cowboy. While playing in a drain pipe as a child, his clothes caught fire and, after running in terror towards the pipe’s opening and standing up just a little too soon, he emerged into sunlight with his scalp hanging down the back of his neck. He still has a massive scar from ear to ear. For years, his brain was dysfunctional and he sat at the bottom of the class, barely able to spell. Later, suddenly, his mind opened and he soared to the top of the class, devouring literature, especially Nabokov. He would have an insatiably sexual relationship with a transvestite and become obsessed with mushrooms.
I remember Louis telling me, during rehearsals for The Golden Age, that he wanted to write a great play about love. He didn’t know whether The Golden Age was that. The desire is apparent, still, in The Boyce Trilogy and of course it’s at the heart of Cosi. Lewis struggles with notions of love as embodied in two women: his humourless, politically engaged girlfriend Lucy and the wilder junkie Julie. Power, ideology and the heart are at war. Of course, there’s much of Louis in Lewis. Each day in rehearsals I sense it more and more. As the Patrick White Award judges remarked, ‘from the outset his writing has shown an uncompromising, passionate, but also comic or satirical engagement with issues of oppression, injustice, alienation and corruption’. It’s a good summary, I think. It speaks to Cosi and is testament to a writer and man who has always wanted to leave the world a more just, more creative and more loving place.
Featured image by Dylan Evans.