Monday June 17, 2024
THE LEWIS TRILOGY
Review

THE LEWIS TRILOGY

By Diana Simmonds
February 25 2024

THE LEWIS TRILOGY, Griffin Theatre Company at the SBW Stables Theatre, 9 February-21 April 2024. Photography by Brett Boardman: from This Much Is True, Cosî, and Summer of the Aliens

Griffin’s artistic director Declan Greene came up with a poignant idea to celebrate the Stables on the eve of its (temporary) closure for much-needed improvement and development. He suggested Louis Nowra reimagine his semi-autobiographical “Lewis” plays into a loose trilogy to go in rep and as an all-day event. The result is – from 1 pm to 9 pm – a feast of performance and storytelling.

The first, Summer of the Aliens, was originally a 1989 ABC radio play that won the 1990 Prix Italia for Fiction. Although set in 1962 as the world grappled with the Cuban Missile Crisis, for 14-year-old Lewis, it was all puberty, aliens and his tomboy friend Dulcie. Adapted for the stage, it opened at Russell Street Theatre for Melbourne Theatre Company in 1992.

The same year Company B at Belvoir in Sydney grabbed Cosî.  The further adventures of now-university graduate Lewis, had him attempting to stage Mozart’s opera with inmates of a loony bin. It was set in the 1970s when such a description was kosher. Four years later Nowra wrote the screenplay for a film that remains a favourite as enduring as the play (in production almost constantly across Australia).

In 2017, Red Line’s Andrew Henry persuaded Nowra to add another chapter to Lewis’s story as it played out in Nowra’s watering hole, the Old Fitz pub. The result was This Much Is True, a piece that links the thematic style of Summer of the Aliens with the eccentric ensemble mode of Cosî. Consequently, although never intended, the three – reworked and edited – make a credible trilogy, with snack break and dinner break between the second and third. There’s not been such a theatrical feast since Cloudstreet.

Summer of the Aliens opens with a narrator and the older Lewis (William Zappa) setting the scene. His teenage self (Philip Lynch) is obsessed with UFOs and aliens at a time when the world is on the brink of nuclear war. The radio crackles out the latest news but Lewis is unsuspecting as his own world – a housing commission suburb on the outskirts of Melbourne – is even more scary. Best friend Dulcie (Masego Pitso) taunts him with merciless affection. His mate Brian (Darius Williams) does likewise but can think of little but sex and getting his hands on Dulcie’s tits. And she is smart enough to flog him a feel for a shilling.

THE LEWIS TRILOGY

Meanwhile, his mum Norma (Nikki Viveca) and irascible gran (Ursula Yovich) snap at Lewis’s feckless heels with boundless energy. More interesting to Lewis are the stark raving local postman Mr Pisano (Paul Capsis) and Norma’s bloke, the charmer Eric (Thomas Campbell).

Summer of the Aliens is full of life and canny portraits of the crazies – the ordinary people – in most of our lives.

The fabled Cosî is the monster firework display that links the other two plays. Jobless Lewis secures a casual post in an asylum directing a play for a cast of inmates. He’s brought a meaningful Brecht with him, but former theatrical Roy has already chosen Cosî fan tutte.

What happens throughout rehearsals is legendary and hilarious. As Roy, Paul Capsis is the bunger in the box that’s accidentally ignited. Quick to explode are Darius Williams as a pyromaniac and Thomas Campbell as the one who trooly rooly doesn’t want to be there. At the other end of the emotional spectrum is Masego Pitso’s touching heroin addict Julie, another stellar turn from shapeshifting Ursula Yovich and Philip Lynch’s exasperated anchoring as Lewis.

It’s no wonder that Cosî is one of our most celebrated plays: funny, heartbreaking, and terrifying by turns. It hasn’t aged in 30 years, which is also funny, heartbreaking, and terrifying.

THE LEWIS TRILOGY

The final element has the world-weary but still eagle-eyed Lewis observing the inmates of the urban zoo, the Rising Sun pub. It’s a tricky role – throughout the trilogy – as Lewis is both in it and on the outer, but William Zappa is a cornerstone presence, in particular in support of former drag star and most hazardous of has-beens Venus. In this role, Nikki Viveca comes into their own and is both truthful and melodramatic, and moving.

The tone of this third play is less ebullient, and grounded rather than soaringly bonkers. While Lewis watches the dogged efforts of society’s failures to find a place in the sun, he is himself searching. As various natives drop off the twig and it becomes clear how change is inescapable, it’s impossible not to think of the Old Fitz, now all but taken over by yuppies unaware of the corner table that was sacred territory to a special group of locals.

Declan Greene has done a fine job of the herculean task of bringing the trilogy together. He’s assisted in every way by Melanie Liertz’s character-defining costumes, Jeremy Allen’s simple, effective set design, and Kelsey Lee’s similarly in-sync lighting. Daniel Herten’s “sounds and music” are especially noteworthy, particularly the motif of a single piano note – B Flat, thanks Phil Scott – and pop hits of each era.

Each can be seen individually but the day with this band of notables is very special – Ursula Yovich, Thomas Campbell, and Paul Capsis being very special indeed. Recommended without reservation.

 

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