Louis Nowra’s darkly funny 1992 play Cosi occupies a special place in the Australian canon.
The play, which sees a young director attempt to stage Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte with the patients inside a mental health hospital, has been revived many times, was turned into a successful film, and has been on and off the school syllabus in the decades since its premiere.
As with his earlier play, Summer of the Aliens, Cosi is based closely on Nowra’s own experiences and features a character called Lewis, a highly-fictionalised version of himself. Around Lewis, in both of the plays, is an eclectic group of characters based on real people from his life.
“Lewis is not me, but at the same time, the characters are people who have terribly influenced me, in a good way,” Nowra says. “I wanted the plays to be really affectionate to human beings. Another playwright could take the asylum of Cosi or the housing commission of Summer of the Aliens and make a really dark play. I wanted to say that people make up my world.”
Now, after 25 years, Nowra is resurrecting Lewis for the final chapter of the trilogy, This Much is True, which premieres this week at the Old Fitz Theatre in Sydney. Fittingly, it’s the regulars at the Old Fitz pub, attached to the theatre, which inspired the play.
Nowra had originally intended on writing the third play in the mid-90s, and even had a commission from Melbourne Theatre Company to do so. But something wasn’t quite clicking, so he returned the commission money to MTC and moved on.
“The real problem was that Lewis was living in a rarified world at the time with theatre people and all those sorts of people,” Nowra says. “One of the things about Lewis is that he comes into an environment where he’s a fish out of water. But in the play I started to write he seemed too comfortable, and the people around him weren’t as interesting as I thought they were going to be.”
It wasn’t until about nine years ago that Nowra found a new community of misfits, and the perfect crowd for both himself and Lewis, right at the Old Fitzroy Hotel, a charming old no-frills Woolloomooloo pub with a tiny theatre in the basement.
Nowra originally started coming to the pub after his chihuahua Coco decided to run inside and find a new home.
“At that stage, the hotel used to have carpet so thin with such a sheen on it from overuse that Coco used to slide across it masturbating — it was like a skating rink,” Nowra says.
Since then, Nowra has been a regular at the pub, attending almost every night of the year with Coco. He quickly got to know the local crowd and earlier this year released Woolloomooloo: A Biography, about the history of the area and the characters he’s encountered at the Old Fitz.
“I just really liked them because they weren’t part of the mainstream and they kind of had their own morality. There are times when, if I hadn’t been part of the community, I would go ‘did I really want to mix with a meth chemist who is in his 80s?'”
That chemist is one of the characters in This Much is True, alongside a formerly famous drag queen, a debt collector and a con man.
The characters are not exact replicas of the people Nowra encountered, and the pub is somewhat different — called The Rising Sun in the play — but the work has found its natural home in the basement theatre at the Old Fitz.
Nowra says he hadn’t been asked to write a play by any theatre company in more than a decade, until the Old Fitz Theatre’s Artistic Director Andrew Henry approached.
“I was fascinated that you could write a play about a place that you love, and [the production] organically came out of the place itself,” Nowra says. “One would hope that it would transfer, and I’ve tried not to make it too specific.”
But it’s difficult to imagine that the experience of seeing this play will be quite the same if the production moves to different venues. At the Old Fitz, Nowra says the lines between the theatrical space and the pub that inspired the play will be very blurry.
The relationship between the pub and the theatre inside it has always been a comfortable but unusual one, and Nowra says most of the characters in the play aren’t avid theatre-goers and rarely set foot inside the pub’s theatre.
But there was one incident in 2015 when one of the people upon whom a character is based decided to see a play after more than a few drinks. The performance featured violence and, in one scene, an actor fell to the floor after being hit.
“He thought ‘fuck me dead, this guy’s dead!’, so he stepped up out of his seat to go and help him,” Nowra says.
When the actor sprung back to life and stood up, the patron decided he’d seen enough and quietly exited.
While Nowra’s friends mightn’t find a love for the theatre as audience members, he certainly makes sure they find a place on stage.