An addictive tale that ‘saved’ the playwright

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Playwright and actor Peter Cook… “My play celebrates the dark times but also the power of the human spirit… and it shows how we all need help.” Photo: Shelly Higgs

Arts editor HELEN MUSA previews a new play about addiction coming to The Street that its author says: “The thing that almost killed me saved me”.

PETER Cook is the brains behind the new play “Breaking the Castle”, which is about to premiere at The Street Theatre. He’s also the actor.

“It’s quite clear that the theme of addiction runs through the show,” playwright Cook says. “But as well as things I’ve been through myself, there are also other people’s stories.”

He plays the character David, described by Cook as “a jobbing actor who’s reached the point in his life when everything has crept up on him… it’s crisis time, his mental health is going down along with his career so he gets through [by] using substances.”

Much as he might deny actually being David, Cook has a lot in common with the character he plays. Like David, he’s a jobbing actor, working on TV and on stage to pay the bills. And like David, he’s looked into the abyss of addiction. 

Cook says that compared to film and TV, “theatre is the most challenging form” and points to the professional upheaval in the entertainment industry where irreparable damage can be done to an actor out of work or sidelined.

But writing about it became his salvation. 

“The thing that almost killed me saved me,” he says.

His is not an uncommon story, he notes, but it is one that needs talking about, since addiction attracts enormous stigma within a panicked public.

Without giving any spoilers, David gets to the point where he must make a decision and, taking off for a remote region in south-east Asia, he faces up.

“’Breaking The Castle’ explores how complex we are as human beings,” he says. “My play celebrates the dark times but also the power of the human spirit… and it shows how we all need help.”

Raised in Brisbane, Cook got experience in film when Warner Bros. studio was operating in Queensland, trained in acting at the Victorian College of the Arts, then returned to Brisbane to become head of acting at the respected Aboriginal Centre for Performing Arts in Brisbane. He’s also acted in several plays at The Street, notably in “The Chain Bridge”.

Although not indigenous, he was part of the artistic team that created “Cunnamulla Dreaming”, a documentary that explored the making of a play at a school in the remote Queensland town.

Writing about the darkness of addiction is one thing, but Cook says: “Now I have to act it, now I have to get up on the floor.”

In doing that, he’s realised that there are “a myriad of Davids”, meaning he has to portray an emotional range from the funny to the sad. 

Director of the work Caroline Stacey is quick to point out the relevance of David’s story, which links into men’s mental health issues, especially in rural towns, where the so-called “ice map” finds its natural epicentre. With this in mind, they plan to take the play to the Hothouse Theatre in Wodonga. 

“When we showed some of it last year at a ‘First Seen’ session there was absolute silence,” she says.

“It felt so real that audience members said: ‘This is the sort of theatre I want to see’.”

And Stacey hints at a “deus ex machina” in which David is saved and Cook uses the word “uplifting”. 

“It’s a pretty universal story and it could go anywhere around the world,” she says.

“But I wouldn’t want anyone else to perform it for a while,” Cook suggests.

“Breaking the Castle”, The Street Theatre, February 28-March 14. Book at thestreet.net.au or 6247 1223.

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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