By Benito di Fonzo. Metro, SMH. May 12, 2006
Death is very much a laughing matter for playwright Simon Mendes da Costa.
There's nothing Simon Mendes da Costa likes more than a good funeral.
"I've been to a number of funerals and I had a lot better time than I had at weddings," he says. "It's just a much more real experience."
The 48-year-old Londoner, who was nominated most promising playwright in London's Evening Standard Awards, is here to oversee the Australian premiere of his black comedy Losing Louie.
The play moves between the licentious adventures of Louis (Christopher Tomkinson) and his funeral 50 years later, where rivalries emerge between bitter eldest son Tony (George Spartels) and his wealthy younger sibling Reggie (Andrew McFarlane). Tony is backed by his wife Sheila (Amanda Muggleton).
Various family skeletons also rattle out of the bedroom closet.
"Families hold secrets within them, and those secrets, if unexorcised, fester as cancers," Mendes da Costa says.
He decided on the setting after the funeral of his grandmother.
"It was just the most fantastic day because it was a celebration of her life," he says. "People got drunk, people laughed, people told stories. So I thought I'll set it around a funeral, but I'm not going to tell it in a dark painful manner. When I was an actor I was always taught you should never say a sad line sadly, you always fight against what the line says."
Like the old blues maxim: sing a sad song happy and a happy song sad?
"Exactly. I think if you are overly heavy you can alienate an audience. It seems as soon as you put a number of people in a room, within a very short period of time, people are trying to be funny."
Director Andrew Doyle agrees.
"When people are in really tight situations that are incredibly sad or stressful the first thing they do is crack a joke," he says. "I know as Australians we do, and sometimes quite incorrectly."
Losing Louie is not autobiographical, but Mendes da Costa did use elements of his Portuguese-Jewish background and relationship with his father.
"On the surface we had the most fantastic relationship, but under the surface I don't think we did," he says. "We do now. I feel, in a sense, writing the play exorcised certain things for me. You don't write unless it's poignant."
Losing Louie is only Mendes da Costa's second play. He penned his first at 42 after several careers including civil engineer, real estate agent, computer programmer and actor.
"I've moved careers because I've been looking to improve my social life. I went along to an evening acting class because I wanted to meet some nice women, and I did, but while I was there I got the acting bug. After a while I thought, 'Let's join another group.'
"I knew someone in a writers' group and I popped along. After three weeks they said, 'What have you got for us to read?' And I said, 'Do I need to have something?' And they said, 'Well, it is a writers' group.' I brought [some writing] in the next week expecting them to laugh and they didn't so I continued writing."
Losing Louis broke Hampstead Theatre's box-office record before playing London's West End.
Da Costa feels his varied past has informed his writing.
"The play has an element of structure I realise has been informed by those years as a computer programmer."
Perhaps more importantly - how is his social life?
"Computer programmer was the nadir. From that you had to go somewhere to improve your social life, and now it's fantastic. Though actually
I'm a bit worried that ultimately playwrights should become a bit insular."
No problem - there are still a few jobs he hasn't tried.
(this article originally appeared in Metro in The Sydney Morning Herald and at
Until June 24, Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, 9929 0644, $36-$59.