Brendan Cowell has spent much of this year living in London, where exciting opportunities are beginning to open up for him as a writer.
Cowell wrote two episodes of The Slap, the acclaimed ABC drama series based on Christos Tsiolkas’s novel, which was nominated for both a BAFTA and an Emmy Award.
“Being nominated for the BAFTA and the Emmy really helps me over there,” says Cowell. “I’ve walked into a lot of rooms, I’ve got a great agent and I can kind of go and see anyone in TV. That was definitely a great door-opener, writing for (The Slap).
“I’ve got a few balls in the air in London now, which is really exciting and that’s where I’m putting a lot of my attention,” adds Cowell, revealing that he is “in development on a show for Channel Four” – a network he says he has “always wanted to work with.”
In June, his 2001 play Happy New, about two brothers whose abusive mother kept them in a chicken coop, had a well-received season in the West End, which has also helped raise his profile in London.
Not surprisingly, Cowell will soon be returning to the UK. But he couldn’t resist coming back to Sydney to perform in Belvoir’s production of Miss Julie, newly adapted by Simon Stone from August Strindberg’s 1888 play and directed by Leticia Caceres.
Earlier this year, Cowell took over from Ewen Leslie in Stone’s award-winning adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck when it went to the Vienna and Holland Festivals – an experience he relished.
There has been much debate in recent months about the number of adaptations on Australian stages, with 28-year old auteur director Stone portrayed as the ‘face’ of adaptations.
Some worry that adaptations are being staged at the expense of original work and though the stats don’t bear this out – Alison Croggon analysed the data in an interesting article for ABC Arts Online at www.abc.net.au/arts/blog/Alison-Croggon/playwright-versus-director-130731/default.htm – there is still consternation among some playwrights at the prevalence of the practice.
Chatting during a lunch break after two weeks of rehearsal for Miss Julie, Cowell is generous with his time, prepared to have his say on a range of issues from the adaptations debate to the differences between Australian and British theatre, as well as discussing the various projects he has on the go as an actor, director and writer.
For his part, Cowell has no problem with Stone putting his own contemporary spin on classic plays like The Wild Duck, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (at Melbourne Theatre Company until September 25) or Miss Julie.
“I think you have to,” he says. “If we were going to do the original it’s really hard to make it work as an actor. They all speak in these long speeches (and) the dreams and the metaphors are very obvious and grandiose. It would be hard to create the tension. And let’s think what class and gender mean now in Sydney. But (Stone) has been incredibly loyal to the structure and I think what Strindberg was really getting at. Strindberg was very angry at that time. Some could say he had deep-seated issues with women of power.
“In the last two weeks Leticia and the cast – because Simon has been in Melbourne doing The Cherry Orchard – have really mined that, especially in the second act. We have really gone into it to find out exactly what Strindberg was furious about and what he was trying to discuss and that’s been really enjoyable.”
Explaining their process, Cowell says that Stone provided a draft adaptation. “We’ve gone in and looked at the original and looked at his (version) and improvised and thrown in a lot of raw material. We’ve videoed it and he’s then come back with (a new version). He’s so clever. He’s managed to encompass everything we found but in his own way so it now has the one voice. So this funny little process is working. None of us have really worked like this but with every production you find the (right) process in the room.”
Later, he says: “we are basically developing a new Australian play as we go along.”
Miss Julie is a claustrophobic exploration of sex, gender, privilege and class. Cowell plays Jean, an ambitious servant who sleeps with his employer’s daughter and then encourages her to commit suicide to escape her predicament when she won’t flee with him and help him realise his dream of running a classy hotel.
In Strindberg’s original, Miss Julie is the daughter of a Swedish count. In Stone’s contemporary adaptation her father is a politician.
“I’m not sure how much I’m meant to give away but, yeah, I’d say he is a kind of (Tony) Abbott-ish figure and you know how many faux pas he had made about women in the past five to ten years,” says Cowell.
“Miss Julie is his daughter, a motherless daughter and a somewhat fatherless daughter, and she’s been put on a media ban because she was caught in a bit of a scandal six months ago in a car with drugs and a boy, which is not going to do him any favours. I’m her father’s driver. I probably fly his helicopter. I’m his right hand man, I’m his bodyguard, and he’s put me and my fiancée in charge of the girl and she’s not allowed out of my sight. So I’m taking her to an after party and watching her and then driving her home.”
For a contemporary Australian adaptation, class isn’t quite the same button-pusher that it was in late 19th century Sweden.
“We do have a class system in Australia but it’s a little more invisible than say in England or in Sweden in the late 19th century,” says Cowell. “I think we’ve had to look at what really is the taboo in this play. So we’ve made Julie just 16 and Jean would be 37 or 38. His fiancée is 39 and wants a baby. So the characters are still very much trapped but by that age thing, which is a big issue in Australia now I think.
“There are lots of women in their late 30s who want to move forward with their life and men their age dating women young enough to be their daughters. And you have women doing the same with much younger men and it can make people very angry. It isn’t Blackbird, it isn’t Lolita, this play, but the age is definitely the main taboo that we are looking at to make it quite potent. It will be interesting to see how men and women react when they come to see it.”
When Stone directed Arthur Miller’s Death of Salesman for Belvoir last year, he changed the ending, cutting the final scene, Requiem. Instead the play ended with Willy gassing himself in his car on stage. When word reached Miller’s estate they were not impressed and insisted that the original ending be reinstated. Stone had no option but to comply but was unrepentant, saying in an interview with The Australian that if the play were not under copyright he would restore his own ending.
Whether he changes the ending of Miss Julie remains to be seen but in a passing reference, Cowell reveals that Stone has considered it.
“The whole play is about entrapment,” says Cowell. “By the end of the play whatever happens – and our ending may or may not be different to the original – these characters remain in their endless cycle of life because of the way they are trapped by society.”
Asked about the heated debate regarding adaptations versus new plays, Cowell is characteristically forthright.
“Simon makes a couple of plays a year in Sydney. He is not Australian Theatre. And you know I think it’s great that he is doing it. Everyone should have their work and their manifesto as to what theatre should be. What Australia needs to learn is how to argue well. We need to relish argument instead of taking things personally. I think that’s why I like being in England and Europe because they can’t wait for someone to disagree with them so they can consider their own view on things whereas we end up saying: ‘f**k you, you’re wrong.’
“Even though we can tweet about xenophobia, I still think the artists and the lefties fail to be able to rigorously argue without making things personal and that was a great opportunity, I think, to discover what Australian theatre is and what it can be but instead it became mud-slinging and that’s what’s sad. We should be better than that.”
Cowell’s career continues to develop apace on several fronts as an actor, novelist, playwright, screenwriter and director.
As an actor, he is still probably best known in Australia as Tom in Love My Way but his credits range from playing Hamlet for Bell Shakespeare to True West for Sydney Theatre Company directed by Philip Seymour Hoffmann to the movies Beneath Hill 60 and Save Your Legs!, which he wrote and performed in. Recently he played a Hebrew warrior in five episodes of The Borgias.
He is now keen to get his teeth into film directing. He had a taste of it recently when he wrote and directed an 80-minute telemovie for the ABC called The Outlaw Michael Howe, to screen later this year. “It may or may not get a cinema release,” says Cowell.
“It all happened very quickly. I was offered the job five days before the shoot and then I wrote a script, cast it and then all of a sudden I was out in Tasmania. It was an incredible experience. I want to make my play Ruben Guthrie into a movie so it was great to get up there and learn what the job is in a lot of ways and to tell the untold story of this incredible man who was conveniently written out of history because he intimidated the government so much.”
Howe was a notorious bushranger who gathered a small army around him, took on the corrupt government, and terrorised Van Diemen’s Land between 1812 and 1818.
“They had an Aboriginal girl with them so they learned how to live and hide and burn the land,” says Cowell. “He also started having relations with a white woman who was a convict but ended up becoming a settler through marrying a wealthy marine officer who was the richest man in Van Diemen’s Land. So I’ve treated it as a tragic love story of a man who I guess resembles what Australia could be. He’s got this beautiful Aboriginal girl who’s teaching him the ways (of the land) and this white girl who is saying, ‘we can have it all.’ So he has the truth or the greed and, of course, he tries to have both.”
Damon Herriman plays Howe. The cast also includes Rarriwuy Hick, Mirrah Foulkes, Darren Gilshenan, Matt Day and Damon Gameau. “So I managed to get all my friends together to go and make a film and they are all brilliant in it,” says Cowell.
As for Ruben Guthrie, he has written a screenplay based on his acclaimed 2008 play – a sharp-edged black comedy about alcohol addiction and binge drinking – and says the project is now in the financing stage.
Meanwhile, he is looking forward to returning to London to continue work on the project for Channel Four. He clearly enjoys living in London and says that having his play Happy New at the Trafalgar Studios earlier this year was very exciting.
“It was fantastic,” he says. “It was quite surreal to see my second play, which is really a dirty, strange piece of theatre (all of my friends say it is my best play) in the Trafalgar Studios in the posh part of town. The director Robert Shaw really stuck by it over six years to get it in there, after it had a run at the Old Red Lion. It’s so hard to get a play on in London as an Australian playwright. There really is a wall up. They don’t want our work there, they will take work from anywhere else.”
Asked why he thinks that is, Cowell says he doesn’t know but suspects there’s “a colonial aspect to it”. However, he’s adamant that Australian playwrights offer something different to British playwrights.
“What we can give them is something they can’t create – and that’s what a lot of the reviews said about Happy New: this is an urgent, ugly, gruesome, raw, emotional piece of theatre that is so whack and uses language in a brutal way, god bless Australia.
“I see so much British theatre and I come out so impressed but so unmoved at the same time. It’s almost like watching great chess players in a park. It’s like, ‘how did you do that?” but quickly at the bar you are thinking about something else. I find Australian theatre affects me – maybe because it’s my life on stage, my country on stage, but it affects me more than anything because I think our actors and designers are a little more imaginative and little more exposed and messier. We can play complex drama brilliantly and we are ready for the full assault. It is always refreshing to come back and see the actors on stage here. It’s marvellous and I think we’ve got some great directors and designers as well.
“But I was really chuffed to walk into London and see my play on the West End. It definitely helps next time I want to present a work there.”
Miss Julie plays at Belvoir St Theatre, August 24 – October 6
An edited version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on August 11