Drumroll…… crash! Kim Carpenter has brought us a marvellous show about the life and times of controversial, larger than life famous Australian artist Brett Whiteley .I was fortunate enough to catch the last performance of the Riverside season . Brett was the bad boy genius of Australian art, Wendy his muse and wife. Together they dominated Sydney’s art world for over two decades.
They were charismatic, convivial yet fractured and damaged. A Whiteley painting can fetch millions at auction but his life ended sadly in a cheap motel on the south coast.The pair’s legacy lives on in Brett’s work, his studio, and Wendy’s Secret Garden in Lavender Bay. Whiteley would have celebrated his 80th birthday this year .This theatre piece is part of the retrospective, in conjunction with Brett Whiteley: Drawing is Everything, a major exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW.
The show depicts their tumultuous relationship. Whiteley was just 17 when he first met Wendy Julius, then 15, the woman who would become his inspiration, wife, and the mother of their only child. Arkie Later in life she also became for a time his enemy when divorce , drugs and infidelity shattered their relationship. After Brett’s death, Wendy again emerged as his stalwart champion, honouring his creative genius and keeping his memory alive.
The show blends straight drama, dance and acrobatics with exciting visuals in a thrilling , compelling performance. It is chronological in format, with various dates indicated on the screen ( eg the London years, the time in New York ). With writer/director/designer Kim Carpenter in charge we see Whiteley’s creative process depicted with bubbling, feverish exuberance.
Projections of images of Whiteley’s work are used throughout the production: the London Zoo series , the Christie murder series, bird’s eggs; the swiftly drawn lines of the birds themselves; the 18-part installation American Dream American Nightmare; we see the blue of the Lavender Bay paintings. Interior with Time Past is recreated in one scene, complete with the original vase and filled with bright orange flowers.
Fragments of Brett Whiteley’s favourite songs are included in the soundscape, including music by David Bowie, Bob Dylan and Nina Simone ( Whitely abhorred the vacuum of silence).. Composer Peter Kennard includes live drumming with his recorded score.
Dancers Dean Elliot, Robbie Curtis and Naomi Hibberd interweave and interact with the actors in sinuous choreography designed by Lucas Jenrvies, linking segments and imply added dimensions of the characters. ( eg they could be demons in Brett’s drugged imagination ) .A highlight would be the acid trip parties in New York .There is an extraordinary segment recreating the “bathroom” series bringing it sensual fluid life ( and shades of Graeme Murphy’s ‘Some Rooms’ perhaps ?) which segues into a tense acrobatic pas de deux based on the Christie series .
The play opens with the introduction of the various characters defining themselves in a few short words : “I died … I died … I wrote a book .. I made a garden.” This bleeds into a segment on Whitely’s childhood
Paul Gleeson as the older Brett is poised and exuberant, at times overflowing with feverish inspiration. Leeanna Walsman as Wendy was magnificent, asserting her independence, wisdom and strength. Both act as the main narrators with the other cast sometimes also playing that role.
The show also looks at the various other women in his life other than Wendy- for example their daughter Arkie , Brett’s sister Frannie ( Jeanette Cronin) his mother ( Olivia Brown ) and his mistress . Arkie was poignantly portrayed by Yasmin Polley.
As well, the almost mutual admiration society relationship between Lloyd Rees ( delightfully played by Tony Llewellyn-Jones ) and Whitely . Rees tells Whiteley, “The moment you know what you are doing, it’s just another form of illustration … Hang onto the mystery.” (Another is Van Gogh’s injunction not to copy nature, but to be its rival.)
The trademark Theatre of Image style is invoked with the use of models. Brett’s death at the hotel is bleakly portrayed with most effective use of a model of the motel and a toy car ( as well as projections ) .
The ending with Gleeson and Elliott as the older and younger Brett with Wendy is tender and moving.
A fascinating examination of the life of one of Australia’s great artists.
Brett and Wendy ran at Parramatta Riverside as part of the Sydney Festival 18 – 27 January 2019.
Paul Gleeson (Home And Away, Rake) as Brett Whiteley
Leeanna Walsman (Star Wars, Wentworth) as Wendy Whiteley
Jeanette Cronin (Letters To Lindy) as Brett’s sister Frannie
Tony Llewellyn-Jones (Opera Australia’s My Fair Lady) as Lloyd Rees
Plus Olivia Brown, Yasmin Polley and dancers Robbie Curtis, Dean Elliott, Naomi Hibberd
Created, written, directed and designed by: Kim Carpenter (Monkey…Journey to the West)
Choreography by: Lucas Jervies (The Australian Ballet’s Spartacus)
Percussive score by: Peter Kennard (Monkey…Journey to the West) featuring snippets of Brett Whiteley’s favourite songs including Bob Dylan, Nina Simone and David Bowie
Costume Designer: Genevieve Graham.
Digital video by: Fabian Astore
Lighting by: Sian James-Holland