GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI WATCHES MOZART WIPE THE FLOOR WITH THE COMPETITION – AS USUAL
Pairing a copper-bottomed opera classic (Mozart’s Così fan tutte) with an imported Australian play exploring the idea of mounting that very opera in a mental asylum amidst Vietnam war protests (Lowra’s Cosi) is a brave and interesting idea from the King’s Head Theatre. It was always unlikely that the play would ever surpass Mozart and Da Ponte’s painfully callous dissection of infidelity, often billed as a comedy but really a far darker and weirder creature, and the opera definitely comes off best in this duel. Paul Higgins’ modern update of Mozart moves the action to a TV show of the Jerry Springer variety, which proves an ideal vehicle for translating its hysterical atmosphere and strange emotional gamesmanship: a shiny mirrored set, digital screen captions (“Your fiancées will cheat on you”), use of live video feed and even occasional incursion from an in-house bouncer when group tensions threaten violence (don’t we all love those bits?) all contribute to the semi-comic, ultimately heartless ‘human zoo’ phenomenon which is entirely familiar to us, dramatised across multiple channels every day. Don Alfonso (Steven East) is a suitably oily celebrity host, Despina (the significantly gifted Caroline Kennedy) his long-suffering, sassy production manager, boasting a range of comic accents as well as her warm, bright soprano, while our lovers are sung impeccably by a talented young cast including a standout performance from Stephanie Edwards as an exceptional Fiordiligi. I can’t often admit that I don’t actually like Così fan tutte much, but Higgins’ production conveys its strange dynamics with such skill and care that even I found I stopped resisting, and started enjoying it: and this cast, with unstinting energy and noticeably sparky pacing, showcase Mozart’s gorgeous music as the flourishes of genius all night. Warmly recommended.
Pacing, unfortunately, is one of the chief problems of Lowra’s Cosi: although it, too, contains some wonderful performances (particularly from soft-voiced Susie Lindeman as an enchantingly unhinged Ruth, Nicholas Osmond as a withdrawn, yet passionate Henry, and Paul-William Mawhinney as the earnest young director Lewis), there are gaps and flaps everywhere, which nuke otherwise comic possibilities. Sometimes a joke comes across with Pinteresque darkness: “I’ve been having treatment for my pyromania,” remarks Doug (Neil Toon) casually as he lights a horrified Lewis’ cigarette with a Zippo that we’re sure Doug shouldn’t have. But then, instead of gracefully leaving that to fester in the imagination as Pinter would have done, Lowra pushes it too far: this joke soon wears thin as Doug sets fire to the theatre repeatedly. Too often, Cosi takes the easy route, with quick pot shots at its parent opera, not often getting under the piece’s skin in anything but the most obvious way. Consistency is another problem, with some cast members repeatedly tempted (or encouraged) to overact; Wayne Harrison is an esteemed director, but this piece feels altogether misjudged for a world-weary London audience, and badly in need of an edit.
~ CHARLOTTE VALORI
For the opera: Four
For the play: Two
At the King’s Head Theatre until 2nd April for the play, 3rd April for the opera. Box Office: 020 7226 8561