When you talk about Così, you could be talking about one of two things: Mozart’s frivolous, beloved, comedic opera, or Louis Nowra’s classic Australian play, in which a troupe of patients at a psychiatric facility attempt to stage a production of said opera.

The latter has been a mainstay of Australian stages and high school syllabuses since its first premiered at Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney in 1992. Nowra’s rowdy and touching work was even adapted for film in 1996, starring Rachel Griffiths, Toni Collette, David Wenham, Jacki Weaver and a young, pre-Hollywood Ben Mendelsohn as Così’s central straight man, Lewis Riley.

This is a hefty backlog of prestige for one little play, something which Melbourne Theatre Company’s associate artistic director Sarah Goodes is acutely aware of. “There is a challenge, yes,” she says, when we discuss what it’s like to stage such a ubiquitous Aussie classic. “There are parts of the play that just need to be a certain way in order for you to hit the high notes as well as hit the low notes.”

“But whenever you give a character-driven story to actors as good as the actors in this piece, they always make it their own,” she continues. “And the actors in this production are just so beautiful. They’re really incredibly talented and nuanced.”

For this show, which is a co-production between MTC and Sydney Theatre Company, Goodes has cast a range of established actors from both cities, as well as a couple of newcomers. Sean Keenan (Puberty Blues, Glitch) deftly plays Lewis, a recent graduate and fish out of water in a Melbourne psychiatric facility.

“It’s really wonderful to watch Sean. He is such a gorgeous actor, he’s so present,” Goodes says. “I’m incredibly excited about this ensemble, because they’re really complimentary together. When they play together it’s thrilling to watch.”

As for the text itself, which was written in the early ’90s but set in the ’70s, Goodes admits the team wrestled with the politics – not just of Mozart’s opera, but also of the Vietnam War era.

“I think you always ask yourself questions about ‘Why this play?’,” Goodes says. “‘Why now?’ And we sort of wrestled with that a bit because it’s a beautiful piece – it’s funny, it’s heartwarming – but it’s got questions around mental illness inside it. ‘Is the play laughing at people with mental illness?’ is a conversation I had with many people.”

Then Goodes met with Louis Nowra to discuss his work. Nowra’s two grandmothers had been at Mont Park Asylum (which closed in 1994), and Nowra himself had gone to the hospital to teach drama to the patients, which is where he got the inspiration for Così.

“What was beautiful about it was that he talked about how he was just interested in who they were as people, not about their illness,” says Goodes. “And I guess mental illness is part of all our lives in some way, and this piece is really about celebrating the power of art to transform people.”

Goodes is adamant that now is the right time for a new performance of Così, which hasn’t been professionally staged in Melbourne since 1993, when it was performed by the MTC in their Russell Street venue. “Così the opera was actually first performed the first year of the French Revolution. And then the play itself is set in 1971, [during the] Vietnam War,” she says.

“I don’t think we’ve been through a period of social change like we’re going through right now since the ’70s. It brings up questions about art, and what stories we should be telling at this time becomes increasingly political and important.”

Whether those performances should be light and buoyant, like Così, or darker like a Bertolt Brecht play, is one of the central questions of Così itself. Either way, says Goodes, “it’s really beautiful – and really important – that art can bring us together” to ponder those questions.

Così is on from April 30 to June 8. More details here. Broadsheet is a proud media partner of the Melbourne Theatre Company.