Based in Sydney, Brendan Cowell has been a major stage and screen actor for over a decade, having appeared many times for Belvoir, Sydney Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare. More recently he turned successfully to writing. He won the Patrick White Playwriting Award with his play Bed and another play, Ruben Guthrie, received a sell-out season at Belvoir. His novel How It Feels was published in 2010 and he also wrote an episode of the mini-series The Slap. His latest play is The Sublime, opening in August at MTC.
I understand that you just completed a latest draft. Has it changed very much?
Yeah, it has changed. I mean it’s still a story about two footballers and a teenage girl, but I’d say it’s gone in a slightly different direction. With every drafting process the characters get a little richer, the play includes a little bit more, you become clearer about the themes and issues you’re dealing with, you deal with them with a little more complexity. I think we were pretty happy with the last draft, but as a writer you send out a draft and think that it’s the greatest play ever written, but twenty-four hours later you’re thinking why did I write that? It’s the worst play ever written. That’s what it’s like.
This story has some similarities to a scandal in AFL a few years ago, the St Kilda Schoolgirl case.
Oh, I think there’s a few parallels, but it’s not a verbatim play. I haven’t read up a bunch of newspaper reports and whacked it down on the page. I made the whole thing up. It’s been inspired more by a climate, I’d say, more than a specific event or a person. It was inspired by the fact that these same sort of issues kept coming up and they sparked my interest. Certainly the St Kilda schoolgirl case was part of that, but there were similar cases up here in Sydney with Rugby League players. It seemed that a lot of the same issues about power were at work. And also, I co-hosted a show called The League Lounge, a satirical interview show on Foxtel on rugby league and I got to know a lot of Rugby League players. I got to see how they are a long way away from how they are perceived in the media. Many of them, they’re kind of sweet, you know, sweet kids in these tough bodies.
Male sexual appeal relies a great deal on status, which these guys have been given, often at a very young age.
Oh, yes, that’s right. And if you look at some of these young guys and all their lives they’ve been given everything they want. So what happens when they’re told that they can’t have something, especially when they have been showered with praise, money and, then, there are these girls throwing themselves at them. The notion of ‘no’ is often a foreign word. And also a lot of the girls are too young and conflicted to be clear about it, they don’t say ‘no’ right out. So they might say ‘maybe not now’, or ‘let’s see how we go’. Then add drugs and alcohol. What do you expect?
I also wanted to see the kind of little boy behind the monster. I think the theme recurs for me having written Harry in The Slap and my novel How It Feels. I like to take the perceived monster in our society and subvert that and show how violence and sexual abuse can be caused by confusion and power confusions, more so than declaring this man is a one dimensional beast full of wrath and want. And also how young girls put themselves in some situations that suddenly they don’t want to be in, but which will define them. Or perhaps they don’t mind how they are defined, perhaps they take advantage of it, and make themselves a media phenomenon out of that power. All these things are of interest to me.
The play also talks about AFL versus NRL as different cultures and Melbourne and Sydney as different cultures as well.
That insanely healthy rivalry. I think I shove that in the audience’s face. So I’m looking forward to a pretty feisty night in the theatre.
Did you write it with a Melbourne audience in mind?
Because it was an MTC commission?
Yeah, Brett [Sheehy, MTC Artistic Director] – I was one of the first writers he commissioned when he started working there. I told him that I didn’t want to write a naturalistic play where they walk into the kitchen with their secrets. I said I would love to do something with voices. And he said that he would love me to write a prose play. I had just seen Terminus [a play of monologues by Dublin-based Mark Rowe] and – all those things seemed to be serendipitous in what he was thinking about and what I was thinking about.
Three people telling their versions of an incident in monologue – it’s a form our audience might know from Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney and Faith Healer – is that a hard form to write?
Oh, look I think it’s really hard just to write a good play. If it were easy people would be doing it all the time. So you try. I don’t know yet. I don’t know whether I have written a great play. What’s interesting is that I like writing words for actors and I wanted to peel away at all the sort of artifice of naturalism until I just have actors and words and a great moral conundrum. And then see if I’m good enough and the actors are good enough and Sam’s [Strong, MTC Associate Artistic Director] good enough to make theatre out of this very pure form which is actors, voices, words. To make a great show you should only need one chair and a few souls and we definitely are going back to that, which is exciting.
But do you think that by stripping the play back like this you are making it hard for yourself as a writer?
Yes, well there are fewer tricks for you to use. There is no way of entertaining the audience with a sight gag – you know, all those things we rely on, all the great conventions with props and so forth. So yeah, it’s real, the whole thing will be exposed.
Getting back to football as a culture. Do you think there are different cultures between AFL and Rugby League or are the similarities the most striking thing?
This is one of the questions that I explore over and over in the play. I don’t want to talk too much about what I talk about in the play, but I think the cultures are wildly different because the natures of the sport are so wildly different. One’s a collision sport, one’s an evasion sport. And I think symbolically in the play I talk about that, how these men deal with the issues in the play – one evades, one kind of meets it head on, one that takes the problem and kicks it away and another who tucks it under his arm and runs straight into trouble. In a way that is indicative of the culture. I think that the AFL is by far the more superior brand, it’s a highly professional kind of middle-class sport. It’s religious in Melbourne. But ARL is still stuck in its working-class track. It’s still blokes standing around the bar drinking schooners and deciding who they’re going to put in the starting line-up. It doesn’t know how to become a great piece of entertainment yet. It can’t escape its 1950s working-class roots. Whereas AFL is a magnificent industry.
The point I want to make, especially with regard to Rugby League players, is that our society is partly to blame in a way because we manifest these sportsmen, want them to be elite, strong, fearless sportsmen who run into each other and crush each other, but then we want them to walk off the field after eighty minutes of gladiatorial warfare and want them to have a cup of tea and be somewhat normal. We don’t want them to get into a fight or piss on someone, or find themselves having group sex. But we have created a superhuman being who is organically going to respond like that. We want them to turn on a very primal instinct to fight and destroy and then we want them to turn it off very quickly. That’s a point I wanted to make on behalf of Rugby League players for some time.
The Sublime is playing at Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio from 22 August to 4 October.