Brendan Cowell: 'Yerma is going to be a holiday after Galileo'

The Australian actor on why he’s pitched his tent on these shores, the ‘rave’-like ”Life of Galileo” and how the Brits do shorter curtain calls

Brendan Cowell as Galileo in Life of Galileo
Brendan Cowell as Galileo in Life of Galileo
© Johan Persson

Brendan Cowell has had a long career in his native Australia as a writer, director producer and actor. He's worked extensively with companies including Sydney Theatre, Bell Shakespeare and Belvoir Theatre, while also writing for shows including the hit TV series The Slap. He upped sticks and arrived on these shores in January last year and has since starred in the award-winning production of Yerma opposite Billie Piper at the Young Vic, which returns later this year. Now he's back at the same theatre but in a very different play: Brecht's Life of Galileo directed by Joe Wright. He explains why he took the huge role and why he's making the UK his home for the time being.

Life of Galileo is a mammoth play and Galileo is a mammoth part, did you know what you were getting yourself into when you said yes to the role?
I couldn’t believe it when David Lan said: "I want you to talk to Joe Wright about Galileo." It’s the entire life and experience of this man. All those words, all that philosophy and all those ideas – it is the weight of a person’s life on your shoulders. I played Hamlet at the Sydney Opera House and I remember getting ready for that six months in advance because I was so utterly terrified. So coming into Galileo I felt a little better prepared because things that I regretted from that experience I could adjust for this one.

How does the play – and indeed Galileo’s life speak to today? He was a scientist from the 1600s, after all…
Our preview audiences have been reluctantly guffawing – including my mate Tim Minchin – at some of the lines which refer to what is real information and what is holding back the truth. It’s about authority figures who have the power to decide what truth is and within that it’s about one man fighting for a very simple idea. The number of decibels to which it rings true is pretty wild. It is also really timely to make a play about how beautiful the world is. Outside the political relevance, the play is about what a gift life is.

Brendan Cowell in Life of Galileo
Billy Howle in Life of Galileo
© Johan Persson

The amazing 59 Productions is working on the projections…
It’s pretty insane. In all Joe Wright’s work everything is always aesthetically stunning and it always chimes in with the ideas in the piece. Here it’s a kind of visual cacophony. It’s really nice to see the whole audience looking up at the projections of stars. It’s spectacular, when you get to see it and feel it on this stage. It’s also intermingled with the music that Tom Rowlands from The Chemical Brothers has done. It’s kind of like a rave. It’s not a daggy old science play, it's been brought a hundred miles an hour into the present. For me the experience takes me back to the early '90s a little bit.

So the Chemical Brothers aren’t making seventeenth century sounds?
They aren’t doing old pipe bands, or flutes, no. Tom is a freak. He’s still making the best dance music around and it’s science-y, it has those ideas in the music. I don’t want to give too much away but when you first hear Joe’s ideas, you think: 'that is pretty ambitious, how is that all going to feel like one show?' You have puppets, you have projections, you have an Australian dude with a beard in the middle playing Galileo. It’s in the round, with no actual stage, with the audience in the middle. But Joe knew it would work. He’s like Galileo: 'Believe me, it sounds nuts but it’s true'. He’s probably the hardest working force of nature I’ve ever come into contact with.

It’s not the first time you’ve been at the Young Vic, did you fall in love with it?
Yeah, I basically just pitched a tent and said to David Lan: ‘I might as well do something while I’m here now’. This play is so hard, it’s probably going to be like a holiday going back to Yerma [in July]. Because I became very close with that cast.

So is the UK your permanent home now?
I applied for the modestly titled Exceptional Talent Visa, and was successful. I worked here as a writer before, I wrote on a TV series called The Slap which did very well. But when I moved I didn’t have an agent or anything. I actually said to my mum that I’d like to work at the Young Vic, because I liked the energy. I feel incredibly embraced by the London theatre community, which has been so heart-warming and creatively challenging, which is exactly what I wanted.

Are there differences between the Australian and British theatre worlds?
Yes and no. I’d say what we do in Australia is a little less formalised, and a little more guttural, or animalistic. But they say London is theatre and it’s true – you go up the escalators in the tube and the walls are covered in theatre posters. In an Australian station you'd see KFC and football. The curtain calls are also a lot shorter than in Australia, we like to clap a lot longer. You’re very restrained.

How did you first get into theatre?
My dad’s an accountant and my mum’s a nurse so it wasn’t a natural progression. But my sister was in a pop group called Girlfriend back in the early '90s and my other sister was a phenomenal ballerina. So I was always waiting for her in the car with my mum. I ended up getting an audition for a McNuggets advert at ten years-old because I was waiting around for my sister, and I got cast in Donald at the Dragon at 12 in my local arts theatre. I was always being slightly obnoxious at school and getting everybody to laugh. But I never got into drama school. I tried, but I never got in. I ended up going back and teaching acting masterclasses at schools that I didn’t get into. I’m untrained but I’ve always felt incredibly at home onstage.

Life of Galileo runs at the Young Vic until 1 July.

The set of Life of Galileo
The set of Life of Galileo
(© Leon Puplett, projections by 59 Productions)