Brendan Cowell: An exclusive interview with the co-writer of The Slap

 

Brendan Cowell, angry young man of Australian fringe theatre, co-writer of gritty TV drama The Slap, wants to talk Sex and the City.

“Those girls can talk,” he says over Skype from a hotel room in India, where he’s filming his next project. “It’s about emotional language. They can sit around with Cosmos and go: ‘God, he hasn’t texted me, I don’t know what to do, I’m heartbroken.’ They get it out.

“But guys – can you go to your dad and say: Dad, I don’t know who I am. I’m lost, I don’t know if I have any talent. Can you admit to confusion?”

Cowell has devoted a good part of his career to articulating male confusion, putting emotional trauma front and center alongside plenty of accompanying sex, drugs and misery.

The young actor, struggling for work, wrote his first play in 2000, “basically to put myself in it”, he admits. Appropriately titled Men, it did well enough to make him reconsider writing as an end in itself.

“With writing, I can play the violin all the time in whatever key I want. With acting you’ve got to wait, and they hand you the violin and say, play it in this key for that long, then go away. I like to be able to wake up and impose myself on society.”

Writing, acting, and publicizing his own plays, Brendan found himself at the forefront of the nascent Sydney fringe, rehearsing in spare rooms but playing to packed houses. Happy New, his second play, which opens for its UK premiere this week, represents the peak of that productive time.

“The people that know me most say it’s my best play. It was dangerous, and it got people talking. I don’t know if I’ve ever been as satisfied as I was then.”

His writing has since won him the respected Patrick White Playwright’s Award, along with international critical acclaim for efforts such as Ruben Guthrie, Rabbit, and ATM.

Best known in Australia for acting and writing roles in TV drama Love My Way, he has played the lead in a handful of feature films and is halfway through directing another.

There’s also his autobiographical novel, How It Feels. “My grandmother said she found parts of the human anatomy she wasn’t aware of in the book, so that’s something. She was planning to give it to the local priest, but I warned her to read it first.”

It’s not surprising that she changed her mind; Cowell’s writing, recalling Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, glories in sexual and chemical excess and the silent tragedy of being a teenage boy.

Men need to find a way to talk, he says.

“I don’t know if we can do it yet, especially in Australia, so we drink a lot, or get in a car and drive it fast because we’ve got to get the feeling out, even if we don’t know what it is.”

He mentions a talk show with novelist Howard Jacobson:

“We were talking about porn. I said that I’ve learned from porn – I’m quite grateful. And then Howard Jacobson said: ‘A man’s mind is a jungle of horror.’ I remember thinking: Yeah. That’s it. There’s an anger in young men, and I’m fascinated by where it comes from.”

Writing The Slap’s Harry, who sets off the drama by hitting a neighbor’s child, was “wonderful”, Cowell says, “because he’s a monster. There are monsters in the world. How do they get to that place?

 “I haven’t moved passed writing about it because it hasn’t ceased being riveting to me,” Brendan says. “I guess I care a lot about young men. You want to be so much, and sometimes you don’t know how to be a lot.

“One of my best mates shot himself in the head. His girlfriend broke up with him, and he didn’t know that ten years later that would have been that funny little first relationship at seventeen. You think it’s the world.

“But there’s tragedy in everyone’s life. It just mystifies me, because he could have visited me in India now, and he’d really like it. You think, why isn’t he here? Why couldn’t he escape that little dark corner?

 “I think reading pretty much saved my life. I got this grand other universe, reading about the Maldives, about Prague.”

In Happy New, the outside world is a terrifying prospect, casting a long shadow over the play. I ask about its bleakly absurd premise, the story of two boys abandoned in a chicken coop.

“I can’t find it, but it happened. It was an article I read in General Studies when I was 16. Their mother left them and they became media fodder. One of them took his life. How could you dream that article?

“They stuck with me, these chicken boys. It’s a little trampoline to talk about masculinity and the pecking order.”

Human beings aren’t so different from poultry, Brendan says. “When the boys came out, they had the mannerisms of clucking chickens. It’s everything, isn’t it, nurture?”

What about his own childhood, I ask.

“Crenulla was the best place to grow up ever,” he says. “All manicured beaches and lawns, and healthy fit white people. But there’s a complete disconnection from the world. I’d never met a gay person or a black person or a non-Christian person, or someone that voted Labour not Liberal. A lot of my adult neighbours had never made the half hour trip over the bridge into the city of Sydney. ‘It’s all here,’ they said, ‘why are you leaving?’

The characters in Happy New toy throughout the play with the dangerous freedom of leaving their confined apartment. But for Cowell, it was hardly a choice. 

“I always knew there was a world,” he says. “And I always knew that I’d go and see it as soon as I was allowed.”

Brendan's play, Happy New, opened on the 31st of January at the Old Red Lion Theatre.

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