Kim Carpenter is the creator, director and designer of Brett and Wendy… A Love Story Bound by Art, a new mixed-media work created for his company Theatre of Image and presented in association with Riverside Theatres, Parramatta and Sydney Festival.

Writing in the program, Carpenter says that he “created this script like a collage, gathering material from interviews, conversations, books, observations and personal experiences and curated them into a form as I ‘see it’.” He also writes that “the heart of this piece is the struggle of the artist as child/man. The painter alone, between his mind, heart and hand, searching for the god-given moments to produce pictures that we all identify him by.”

Paul Gleeson as Brett Whiteley. Photograph © Fabian Astore

Some elements of the collage work extremely well; others, particularly the text, are less effective, so that although there are some strong moments the overall effect is a fleet-footed 75 minute theatrical biography of a renowned Australian figure, that ticks many of the major points in his life and career, but but without bringing a great deal of depth to Whiteley himself or the people around him.

The show moves from Whiteley’s early years as a rebellious boy, to becoming the rock star of Australian art, to his death from a drug overdose at a motel in Thirroul in 1992, aged 53. It takes in, among other things, his intense, vital and later troubled relationship with his muse Wendy, their time in London and New York, where they stayed at the famous Chelsea Hotel, his creation of his huge 18-panel painting The American Dream, and their move into the house at Lavendar Bay where he painted his iconic Sydney Harbour works. We learn about his admiration of artists such as Lloyd Rees and Francis Bacon. We meet Whiteley’s sister Frannie Hopkirk, his parents Clem and Beryl, his daughter Arkie, and his lover Janice in brief scenes. And then comes the onslaught of his drug addiction, after Wendy has an affair with Michael Driscoll who introduced them to heroin.

Leeanna Walsman and Paul Gleeson. Photograph © Fabian Astore

Visually, it’s a lovely looking production, set in an artist’s studio with a table covered in pots of paint, a large container to the left, a ladder, and a screen on which images of Whiteley’s work and supporting historical footage are screened (Fabian Astore collaborates with Carpenter as digital artist). Composer/musician Peter Kennard sits to the right of the stage and plays live percussion to his own recorded score. The music is a powerful, eloquent component, underpinning the action, building tension and intensifying atmosphere. Genevieve Graham’s costuming and Sian James-Holland’s lighting are both very evocative as well.

The strongest element is the dance, choreographed by Lucas Jervies (who recently choreographed Spartacus for The Australian Ballet). There are three fabulous dancers – Robbie Curtis, Dean Elliot and Naomi Hibberd – who portray certain characters, and also interact with the actors in several wonderfully inventive scenes which physically convey the way Whiteley moved paint around his canvas, and how that changed when he became addicted to heroin.

The point at which the production really takes flight is when Curtis and Hibberd dance in a bathtub, representing serial killer John Christie, who murdered at least eight women in his flat in Rillington Place, Notting Hill, London, with paintings from Whiteley’s Christie series shown on screen.

Dancers Robbie Curtis and Naomi Hibberd, with Paul Gleeson. Photograph © Fabian Astore

It’s the text that is the weakest aspect of the production. So often we are told things by various people – clearly direct quotes from Carpenter’s interviews – rather than seeing the observations embodied in the drama. Some of what they say is poetic, some of it delves into Whiteley’s obsession with beauty and nature, as well as violence. But it rarely feels as if the production is getting beneath the surface and really exploring this.

The cast led by Paul Gleeson as Brett and Leeanna Walsman as Wendy, with Tony Llewellyn-Jones as Lloyd Rees and Clem, Jeanette Cronin as Frannie, Olivia Brown as Beryl, and Yasmin Polley as Arkie, aren’t able to overcome this and the characters never really come to life. Thus we get a beautifully staged biographical piece, that tells us a lot about a fascinating man without drawing us into his story emotionally. Only when the dancers take flight does the work really soar.

Brett and Wendy… A Love Story Bound by Art plays at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta until January 27


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