Louis Nowra’s comedy is set in a psychiatric hospital in Australia in 1970. A young director is asked by a social worker at the hospital to help a group of patients to put on play and, because of the enthusiasm of one of them – Roy, a frustrated thespian – for Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte and its ‘music of the spheres’, they end up putting on a play based on the opera’s story. Mozart’s immortal music is relegated to a few snatches of famous tunes provided by a tinny ‘ghetto blaster’.
It is a broad comedy and, for the non-squeamish, there are plenty of laughs. Mark Little as the irrepressible Roy is the heart of the story and his extreme enthusiasm for the magic of Mozart – and his unrealistic belief in the theatrical talents of his fellow patients – is beautifully done by Little, an actor with real range. Paul-William Mawhinney is convincing as Lewis, the hapless director. He is torn between the fear that the project is slipping out of his control and his growing commitment to his weird cast – and between his shaky relationship with his politico lover and his growing attraction to the junkie patient, both roles played with style by Laura Garnier.
The problem for me was that the portrayal of the psychiatric patients was uneven in tone and their reduction to comic stereotypes made me very uncomfortable. Garnier played the junkie pretty straight while Christopher Finn played the over-sedated musician Zac as a comedy turn – his second role as the camp social worker was even more of a music hall sketch. The cheerful sociopath played by Neil Toon, the OCD depressive played by Susie Lindeman, and the buttoned-up psychopath played by Nicholas Osmond were funny but all teetering on the edge of pantomime. It is a difficult tone to carry through especially when the play clearly has ambitions to develop some interesting reflections about the themes of the Mozart/Da Ponte masterpiece that is the source of the story that the patients are dramatizing. Truth and deception, lust, love and fidelity are the themes that are in the spotlight – and Nowra has some real insights into these themes which are played out through the parallels between what happens in the opera and what happens in the lives of the Lewis and his friends and the patients he begins to care about. But these serious notes are all but drowned out by the belly laughs conjured up by the behaviour of the ‘lunatics’.
By the end of the play we could see the person behind each of the patients and we all wanted to applaud Lewis’ choices but for me the baggage of the funny lunatics was still a bit in the way. And a play that is supposed to be about Cosi fan Tutte that doesn’t include more than a few bars of the greatest trio Mozart ever wrote has missed a trick.