Louis Nowra’s first play in a decade — the final part of the ‘Lewis Trilogy’, following on from Cosi and Summer of the Aliens — is called This Much is True, and is inspired by the characters of the Woolloomooloo pub Nowra has frequented for the last nine years.
But exactly how much of the play is actually true is hardly the point. You get the impression that some elements may have been exaggerated for dramatic effect, and events may have been condensed into a shorter time frame to ramp up the intensity. But this is theatre, after all, and the artists’ truth is the one that matters most.
Although it was inspired by Louis Nowra’s life, the central figure in the play is Lewis, not Louis, and the pub that he calls home is The Rising Sun, not Nowra’s beloved Old Fitz, where the play is having its world premiere.
What Nowra has captured with a clear degree of accuracy is the spirit and sense of community that grows out of a pub like the Old Fitz, nestled in a corner of Sydney with just a few slivers of territory still yet to be claimed by gentrification.
The community he writes about is an unlikely one, made up of individuals who mightn’t mix but for the fact that they share a common need for a local watering hole.
Lewis (Septimus Caton) is a writer who has recently moved into a new area looking for cheap housing. One day, he stumbles into The Rising Sun, looking for a drink. He immediately meets Cass (Danny Adcock), a “fixer” who seems to have his hands in lots of pies and plays fast and loose with the truth. There’s Gretel (Joanna Downing), the bartender who cares deeply for all the locals, all the while trying to sort out her own life, Wesley (Ashley Lyons), a formerly successful family man battling mental health issues, and Malcolm (Alan Dukes), a debt collector who’s fallen on hard times.
Perhaps most extraordinary are Clarrie (Martin Jacobs), a prodigiously talented chemist responsible for some of the most popular illicit substances on Sydney streets, and Venus (Justin Stewart Cotta), a retired drag star of some repute, still holding onto her imperious glamour.
As is always the case in these pubs, there’s a “cast change” every couple of years, and there’s a slow but constant state of change as the world turns. One day, one of the old regulars suddenly dies, but soon enough another one walks in — the slightly-too-urbane Rhys (Robin Goldsworthy) who, against all odds, manages to fit right in.
Much of the play unfolds in a series of interconnected episodes: Cass takes the group to the theatre, Lewis helps Venus out when she’s had a few too many, Clarrie has a serious run-in with a gang, the bar’s patrons are all conned etc.
Although Nowra has given the play a loose dramatic shape, he hasn’t tried too hard to shoe-horn the action into any kind of neat theatrical arc. It means the play can be gloriously messy and sometimes difficult to get a handle on, but rings with truth and the grit of real life.
Tonally, it hits exactly the same sweet spot as Cosi — somewhere between the comedic, the tragic, and comedically tragic.
The focus is not at all on Lewis — the man who stumbled from his housing commission roots in Summer of the Aliens, into a mental health hospital in Cosi, and then straight into another community of misfits in this play — but again on the people who surround him and how they interact with the world around them.
The portrait Nowra paints is a richly compassionate one, and refreshingly free of any kind of moralising. To say many of these characters are flawed individuals is a massive understatement, but they’re just as deserving of an audience’s respect and understanding as any other.
Director Toby Schmitz, who knows this pub almost as well as Nowra, has imbued the production with plenty of life and a sense of heightened realism. The play runs for two hours without an intermission, and although it may test its audience’s buttocks, it has no trouble holding their attentions.
Schmitz understands the theatrical space perfectly (Anna Gardiner’s set is the perfect extension of the real-life pub just outside the theatre) and allows his cast to casually break the fourth wall in moments of relaxation. There are a few very subtle moments of meta-theatricality in his production, but the focus is on capturing the dynamic of this community.
His cast are all excellent, painting characters that you could describe as larger-than-life, but for the fact that they are so truthful. Septimus Caton is the perfect “guide” as Lewis, Joanna Downing is a brilliant “straight” woman as Gretel, and Alan Dukes expertly captures a man whose life won’t quite come together.
Danny Adcock and Martin Jacobs are both full of an extraordinary nervous energy as Cass and Clarrie, and Robin Goldsworthy is very comfortable as newcomer Rhys. Ashley Lyons makes a big impression as Wesley, as he slowly becomes crushed by his own delusions, and Justin Stewart Cotta is a stand-out in a deliciously arch performance as Venus.
This Much is True is a very welcome return to the theatre for Nowra, who has spent most of the last decade working on books and other forms of writing. It’s the perfect subject for his return, and a play that will surely find a life elsewhere. It may be developed and tightened in future seasons, but it’s difficult to imagine any will have the same sense of immediate magic as this premiere production in the very pub that inspired the play.