Congratulations to Jopuka Productions on the success of their inaugural production! Jopuka is the baby of multi-talented local creative entrepreneur, Joshua Maxwell, who has been working and dreaming toward its inception for the past seven years. Now the hard work has been rewarded with sell-out performances at The Hub, Erina last weekend.
“Jopuka is the first company of its kind on the Central Coast,” says Josh. “We aim to create unique and innovative performance opportunities for young people aged 16 – 30 years old. Blending modern and classical forms of theatre to create a fresh and exciting theatrical arts company, Jopuka will present a range of productions and events through its season with an emphasis on Australian works.”
With that in mind, they have opened their first season with an Australian classic, Cosi by Louis Nowra. First performed at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre Cosi was then adapted for the 1996 movie starring Ben Mendelsohn, Barry Otto, Toni Collette and David Wenham. It’s a semi-autobiographical play in which a broke and jobless author finds himself directing a production of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte, where the cast are patients of a Melbourne mental hospital. Lewis must learn to understand the diverse needs of his actors, whilst juggling relationship problems with partner, Lucy, and a political extremist friend, Nick. The script can be confronting but is also hilarious, sometimes both at the same time. It is astutely observed, sensitively exploring the issues and backgrounds of a group of individuals, exploiting the humour of their idiosyncrasies without once being condescending, instead inviting audience empathy and resulting in a heart-warming and thought provoking drama.
This production was designed by Josh and directed by Danielle Brame Whiting, principal of XtrAct Drama Academy which has nurtured some of the Coast’s most promising upcoming generation of actors. Several of her protégés were among the cast, performing alongside more seasoned local stars.
Whilst the show was in production, Danielle was asked if the play made fun of the mentally ill. Having read and studied the script for a year, and having personal experience in both familial and social spheres with a number of different mental illnesses, Danielle was able to respond with an authoritative and emphatic “no!”
The original script was set in 1971 and drew on Nowra’s own first-hand experience for its inspiration. “The play certainly exposes the zeitgeist of this period in regards to attitudes towards mental illness,” says Danielle. “The character of the social worker, Justine, describes the asylum patients as ‘ordinary people who do extraordinary things.’ However, this attitude was not taken by the majority of the public at that time. People who struggled to fulfil society’s idea of ‘normal’ were locked away in these special hospitals so as not to upset our status quo. I do believe that Justine’s explanation to our protagonist, Lewis, speaks to the heart of what Cosi is about.” The patients are shown through the eyes of Lewis, a recent graduate from the insulated world of academia and, as Danielle explains, “he enters the world of the asylum assuming intellectual superiority, giving no weight to life experiences, and no thought to consequences of those lives hard fought. By journey’s end it is Lewis who has been the student: the patients have tutored him . . . and have made him question and re-evaluate how he chooses to live his life and what is truly important. He learns that the word ‘normal’ is completely relative, and probably obsolete.”
Danielle’s direction style is subtle and nuanced. She and Josh took a minimalist approach to set and staging, reflecting the limited resources of the play’s would-be dramatists. The effect was to concentrate focus on the characters and their story, and on the performances of the actors who portrayed them. The fine ensemble cast comprised Scott Russell, Marc Calwell, Jillian Logan, Sharne Brock-Fenton, Chris Brame, Les Besseny, Niccy Hallam, Matt Rowley, Donna Russell, Madeline Parker and Josh himself (who proved as talented on stage as he is behind the scenes). Danielle assembled a dedicated group of actors who shared her respect for the play and its characters, and each of them inhabited their roles excellently. Several have themselves had personal experience with sufferers of mental illness, and all the performances clearly showed the benefit of careful research. Their portrayal was sensitive, sympathetic and authentic, and their brilliant exploitation of the humorous dialogue made the emotional moments all the more dramatic and poignant. There was also some cleverly handled physical humour and action, and the play was not without glamour; the period costuming in the final scene was colourful and impressive, and effectively pointed up the contrast the theatrical outlet provided for the patients from their formerly drab daily existence.
I found the show completely absorbing, entertaining and moving, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what Jopuka Productions have planned for us next. They promise an exciting season ahead with a wide variety of shows and events. Up next they continue to push the envelope with “Cabaret Against Humanity: a stage show for horrible people”, which will be touring the Coast in November and December. Auditions for their 2017 production Hating Alyson Ashley will be held on September 18th @ Watanobbi Community Centre. Also next year, there’s the mysterious “Secret Show”, 13 The Musical, and W. T. F. (the Wyong Theatre Festival): all in all, a very promising upcoming program from the new company, and I wish them every success with it! You’ll find audition packs for Hating Alyson Ashley and more information on Jopuka’s upcoming program at jopukaproductions.com.au
The cast photo is courtesy of Jopuka Productions publicity.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, help is always available. Here are links to some charities and organisations you can contact for information and support: