Red Stitch’s 10th anniversary year opens with the Victorian premiere of Brendan Cowell’s Ruben Guthrie, a witty and insightful portrait of dependency in a prodigious talent.
Cowell was commissioned by Company B to write Ruben Guthrie after he won the Philip Parsons Young Playwright’s Award in 2005. As well as being a playwright, Cowell is a screenwriter, director and actor perhaps best known for his TV performances in Love MyWay and Life Support, as well as his portrayal in the lead role of Bell Shakespeare’s production of Hamlet. He has also won the Patrick White Playwrights award for his third play Bed.
Cowell freely admits that this latest play is inspired by his own experience of sudden sobriety a few years ago when he decided to swear off alcohol for one year, so it is no surprise that Ruben Guthrie (Toby Schmitz), a young creative director for an advertising agency, is highly successful, highly paid, and so often high on booze that when he gives up drinking little in his world stays the same.
Cowell comments on his sobriety in that period: "I took a year off the sauce and my world turned upside down. The epiphanies and realisations I had about human nature were startling. That was when the play was born. It was definitely the higher ground. I should probably do it again, although it was a bit boring, and it was really tough going out with friends. But I felt that if you just left by 10:30 p.m. when everyone starts to get a little loose, you would avoid temptation.
I think a lot of industries are based around the consumption of the alcoholic beverage, and it’s a crutch in our society. We need to drink for work, we need to drink for romance, we need to drink to loosen up around friends and family. Once you take alcohol out of your life, things will be pretty different."
As a playwright, Cowell has been described as writing dialogue with a remarkable balance between comedy and compassion. Any play about a controversial theme may be viewed as having a pro- or anti-voice, but Cowell’s style is not pithy or sententious.
"The themes and the issues seem to come together, but I definitely didn’t want to write a didactic play," he says. "I don’t think that it’s a pro-drinking play or an anti-drinking play. To me it’s about a confused bloke trying to grow up and the pressures that are put on him by all those around him. Because as soon as you take something out of your own life it threatens the relationships around you and that’s more what the play’s about."
Alcohol abuse is serious business but everyone knows that humour can be found in even the most serious of business — good playwrights know this as well, as Cowell explains:
“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 manoeuvring 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…”
Ruben Guthrie will play at Red Stitch Actors Theatre (www.redstitch.net) from February 4 – March 5, 2011.