Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Interview With Brendan Cowell

Tired and must get sleep. But I hate not updating this blog more often, so I'm lazily posting a feature of mine that appeared last week in Drum Media. It's a story about the guy pictured. I think I'm seeing the play to review it this week as well. He is funny and very talented.

“...laughter is a catharsis and it’s the greatest way of bringing an audience in. Once they’re laughing, they’re loving you, they’re yours. They open up when they laugh and you can kind of injure them more...”


Playwright BRENDAN COWELL’s latest play - a black comedy entitled Self-Esteem - examines the culture of being a better person in the eyes of those we think are better people. Unlike all the other press you read about the playwright, LEE BEMROSE decided to reveal the real man.

When I phone Brendan Cowell during a short break in rehearsals for his new play Self-Esteem, I secretly hope to catch him in a bad mood. I want him to be tired and grumpy because everything I’ve read about him reveals him to be talented, hard-working, successful. He just makes the rest of us look like lazy slobs. And no one, it seems, has a bad word to say about him, so I call with the hope of revealing the real Brendan Cowell. While the phone rings I absently doodle a potential headline: Brendan Cowell Is A Really Cranky Bastard.

If you don’t know the name, you will definitely know the face. The 30 something actor/writer/director has appeared in a variety of TV dramas including Love My Way and is probably most recognised as the earnestly well-meaning home handyman Tod from SBS’s Life Support. It was a show whose four presenters played their absurdist humour so straight that if you weren’t paying attention you might briefly have believed you were watching the kind of lifestyle program they were in fact ripping the piss out of.

The easy talent Cowell deploys on-screen carries over to what appears to be his real passion: writing. He’s written around 10 plays that have enjoyed critical and box office success and have picked up a number of awards including the Patrick White Playwright Award for Bed. Written several years ago, Bed is about to debut in the USA, and as we go to print the feature film Noise hits our big screens starring the ubiquitous Cowell. There are talks about his next play possibly being commissioned by Belvoir Street.

Cowell answers the phone, and I’m in luck – he’s just broken from rehearsals and has sat down to lunch and the press wants to interrupt his brief break. Perfect. I punch the air... yesss.

But I am disappointed because it quickly becomes clear that Cowell – hard working as he is – is frustratingly good-natured and disarmingly laid-back and happy to chat. I scribble out my headline. I also instantly ditch a series of silly, muck about questions because although he loves humour, it immediately strikes me that he takes it quite seriously – even if the current play does involve everything from singing to violence, aerobics and bondage.

Self-Esteem is a black comedy focusing on our obsession with the more superficial elements of self-improvement. CHAD is an imagined religious/economic entity that installs identical life coaches in average Australian homes. Chad will work the families into more suitable citizens and take 20% of the family income for the privilege. The play is set in the near future and sounds a little far-fetched (in the way George Orwell’s 1984 once sounded far-fetched), but also disturbingly timely.

At the heart of a lot of black comedy is anger, so I ask where the anger for this play came from.

“I guess what I’m angry about in this play,” a very calm Cowell says after careful consideration, “is apathy. It’s a kind of curious investigation of apathy and why Australia is so obsessed with its American alliance, and why we’re so obsessed with deprecation. And that argument is kind of weighed up with this new age fascination with betterment... about take this pill or join this religion and buy this DVD that has The Secret and everything will change.

“I want to understand why we are so fascinated with these higher powers and why we are not happy within ourselves. Why we need to strengthen our alliance with America, why we have to strengthen our alliances with your Hillsongs and Scientologies. So they’re the kind of questions that are in the play.”

Ah yes, quasi-religions – you either love them or you hate them, and it’s a fair bet that if you’ve written a black comedy about them, you probably hate them. I wonder how deep the anger runs, how dark the play gets.

“I think it’s always funny,” Cowell replies in that measured way. “I think darkness is pretty subjective so some things might injure people more than others. But it’s pretty confronting. My plays never hold back, so I don’t hold back in this play. The anger is palpable and there’s some pretty serious and dramatic situations that go down. But that’s the beauty of the theatre – you get to present things in their fiercest extremes.”

The concept of injuring the audience comes up a short time later when I ask about the role of humour in this kind of theatre - is it simply a tool to deliver the message? Cowell speaks of it more as a weapon delivering the blow.

“You know, I take things very seriously yet at the same time I try not to take them seriously at all. I like a good time. I like laughing. It’s kind of my favourite thing to do. I mean the world’s pretty fucking funny when you look at it.

“Also, as far as maneuvering and manipulating an audience, laughter is a catharsis and it’s the greatest way of bringing an audience in. Once they’re laughing, they’re loving you, they’re yours. They open up when they laugh and you can kind of injure them more...”

While Bed deals with universal themes of love and how relationships change us, it’s difficult to imagine Self-Esteem going down too well in the USA. American culture is so steeped in the very self-improvement dealt with in the play that audiences there, more than likely, just won’t get why it’s funny or why someone thinks that whole culture is wrong. But Cowell shrugs at this; Self-Esteem is simply an Australian play for Australian audiences.

The director speaks of his cast in glowing terms – brilliant; impeccable; hilarious; awesome; world class. By now it’s depressingly easy to imagine the cast referring to their director in similar terms. No dirt there.

Getting desperate for something negative about the man, I ask what his mother thinks about the script.

“Ahh... she thinks it’s a bit filthy –“

I punch the air again – yesss! New headline: “Brendan Cowell’s Mum Thinks He’s A Filthy Degenerate.” Perfect.

“But she loved it,” he goes on matter-of-factly. “She thinks it’s a real play for our times. She said it’s going to shake them up.”

Which is - above all else - exactly what good theatre is supposed to do.

At Wharf 2 from 20 April – 5 May.


Kathryn said...

Great review, Quick. I've actually heard of BED and think it sounds very interesting! Yes, Americans may not entirely get it but some of us will.

Just saw a play on Saturday called Orange Lemon Egg Canary http://www.nytheatre.com/nytheatre/oran3802.htm It's one of those plays that "opens" one up with laughter and as Brendan Cowell put it leaves the audience open to "injury" later on... Very good.

Plus the magician's assistants are sexy and they do real magic (always a plus).

Margarita Milonguita said...

I recently watched an interview with Eddie Izzard and he was asked if he changes his shows for different countries. His response was perfect. "The world is made up of smart people and dumb people. The smart ones will get it and the dumb ones won't." I too wondered if Americans would get Eddie's obtuse sense of comedy but they do and he has a huge following there.
I'm sure 'Self Esteem' will be seen by the smart people and they will get it. I hope this play makes it to MTC so I can see it.
Great review yet again, Lee.

Quick said...

Thank you Kathryn. (It's not a review though). And Bed does sound good. As does Orange Lemon Egg Canary.

Very good point, MM. I did think about that after writing it. Of course not all Americans are the same and there's bound to be heaps of them who will totally appreciate it. It was just that at-a-glance stereotyping thing based on so much the media shows us. It's easy to believe that every American is a die-hard patriot who believes America should own the world.

I just thought that it was interesting that Brendan also believed it wouldn't work in America. Maybe he meant it wouldn't work in its present form and would have to be modified.

Like you say, humour and satire are universal languages.

Eddie Izzard is one of my favourite comedians.

Guyana-Gyal said...

I miss out on a lot, living this far away from everything...you'd be surprised how stifling it can get, not being in a vibrant, creative environment.

This post has lifted my spirit.

Best quote for me: “You know, I take things very seriously yet at the same time I try not to take them seriously at all."

Quick said...

Glad it lifted your spirit GG. Your comment has been rattling around in my mind all day. I'm kind of always aware of how lucky I am at this point in life. It hasn't always been this good (spectacular understatement), but it is pretty good right now and I am so grateful for it. It can be easy to forget how privileged we are though.

I grew up in the suburbs where it was definitely not vibrant and creative. I think most people I grew up with stayed there while I bailed as soon as I could. I moved into the city and I guess I searched for the kind of creative vibe I needed. It's taken a long time, but I kind of feel part of something now, if that doesn't sound too corny. I still have my own stuff to work on but I'm happy to be doing what I do as my work.

I can't imagine not having had such easy access to it - or at least to its availability.

Your comment made me remember that I never want to be jaded or take things for granted.

I was sent a press release in the post the other day and when I opened it I got all dramatic in front of Ann. I threw it into the air and announced loudly with a flourish "A press release? If it's not a fucking invitation to an opening night, I don't want to know about it."

We thought it was hysterical because it's not how I am. Wonder what the neighbours thought.