On 12 July, I accompanied a fellow enthusiast to see Knightmare’s Edmund Dehn in the Australian play Cosi at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington. Below is a review of a gripping, humorous, and thought-provoking production.
Louis Nowra’s Cosi is a witty and arresting semi-autobiographical play set inside an Australian asylum in the early 1970s.
Theatre graduate Lewis is commissioned to direct a performance with a group of sectioned volunteers. The eccentric Roy (Edmund Dehn), the only member with discernible theatrical interest, champions Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte with such fervour that it eventually gets adapted to the purpose and its limited cast, none of whom can either sing or speak Italian.
The dissection of the musical becomes an absorbing exploration of faithfulness and fidelity, revealing more integral human values in the mentally estranged than in the apparent ‘normality’ of the outside world.
In the background, Lewis cohabits with girlfriend Lucy, a loose-cannon ‘free-love’ advocate, and best friend Nick, who spouts a rather ugly brand of left-nationalism in the face of the Vietnam War. Their ideological domination over Lewis is apparent. Early on, Nick’s assertiveness overrides Lewis’s hesitancy to help get the house in order (to the delight of the ever-vexed Roy), and several of the sectioned characters identify Lewis’s naivety over the ‘free-love’ mantra that works rather too conveniently for his two cohabitants.
Moral roles of ‘normality’ and ‘insanity’ soon begin to fall apart. An ill-judged, Nick-inspired topical joke inserted into the script draws the reclusive Henry explosively into the heart of the play. As snippets of Lewis’ personal life spread around the asylum, warm-hearted drug addict Julie finds herself attracted to him. Their common empathy shows Lewis a level of compassion and companionship that has been lacking elsewhere in his own relationship.
Later, upon the news of her pending release, she reveals herself to be a lesbian; their connection does not belong in the outside world. Neither confinement nor liberty offers the perfect equilibrium. Yet, the asylum is the safer world, and both ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ lives grow dependent on it.
Codpieces and Nutcases
Many continue to aggrandise the comedic element of the play as its main feature. Though the profundity strikes a stronger chord, the implicit and explicit humour is undoubtedly what ties the play together. The Italian opera is nonsensical; despite Roy’s passionate clamour for ‘music of the spheres’, music becomes the least important element of their production.
The burnt-out set becomes somewhat appropriate when we’re introduced to the ‘pyromaniac’ Doug. Doug’s havoc presents the biggest threat to their project, and in the first sign of collective will, the others accept the blame for his misdemeanours to keep it alive.
The thespian Roy is counterbalanced by the eccentric musician Zac, whose countenance at times resembles a cross between Freddie Mercury and Boycie from Only Fools and Horses. He sleeps at the piano, argues defiantly for a Wagner score, and, donning a Nordic helmet, declares forthrightly that ‘Women are God’s punishment for men playing with themselves’. Shy of a jockstrap, he might just be the closest theatrical equivalent to one of Shakespeare’s fools.
The insatiable Cherry, determined to fatten up an already portly Lewis, is barely without a sandwich in hand. It takes a hard-earned snog for Lewis to later prise a knife from her; one of many moments where the seriousness dissolves into comic harmlessness.
The show rang with the exuberance of a quality cast and otherwise beautiful direction from Adam Spreadbury-Maher. The sole disappointment of this performance was its ending, where total completeness does not fit. Lewis turns narrator for an afterword-cum-epitaph, revealing the fate of the characters as they reappear on stage. Several of them, returning back to their own world and devices, have not survived. Henry, without the security of the play, dies inside. Julie, following her release, and without the security of the asylum, dies of an overdose.
But the presence of the deceased on stage, offering no visibility to the loss of characters with whom the audience does bond in this concentrated play, mutes the impact. It felt like the audience was being protected from death to preserve the light-heartedness.
Good comedy can encompass a sad ending. An insipid ending can compromise any performance. Retrospectively, the quality of this performance ensured it survived intact. Had I been left with tears, the comedy would not have been forgotten; I would only have appreciated more the acute contrast that the play provides. Perhaps there’s potential left untapped.
Cosi was written in the wake of renewed critical attention to metadrama, a device it consciously and expansively enacts.
It’s a play about performance. It’s a play where illusion and reality are differentiated in painful simplicity, then reunited in complexity. It’s a play that questions normality, to the degree that the audience become inpatient spectators. And it’s a play where comedy pervades the ongoing tragedy. We quickly realise there’s to be no happy ending. The play serves a remedial purpose for most, though not all, and reveals a rather destitute side to the free-willed (and free-loving) outside world.
It’s not cutting-edge or radical theatre, but Cosi is witty, thoughtful and fundamentally human. It’s a great pity that the play is not better known, and this engaging performance and talented cast certainly deserve an encore or several.
It was an thrill to meet Edmund Dehn afterwards (albeit briefly). This photo, like his performance, will be memorable for years to come.