Barry Dickens is an award-winning Australian author, poet, journalist, playwright, artist and Melbourne icon. His latest venture, Whiteley's Incredible Blue…an hallucination, about the artist and two time Archibald Prize winner Brett Whiteley, will showcase at fortyfivedownstairs in October.
Dickens asks: "What lies inside the imagination of an artist and addict," and it is through this work, not so much a biography as it is a rendering of Brett Whiteleys' life, that we glimpse both the gifted and the troubled man.
Dickens writes of this work: “Whiteley was addicted to the colour French Ultramarine Blue, so I wrote a highly lyrical experimental comic tragedy for one performer capable of splitting painterly atoms to blossom into everyone around him.”
Barry Dickens graciously granted me an interview and his responses appear below:
While reading some literature about you I discovered, to my surprise, that you had left school early. Was this decision to not pursue academia at this point in your life a conscious one or one borne out of necessity?
It was a marriage of inconvenience since I loved to learn but hated my teachers.
Growing up in Reservoir, what are some of the early influences that you can now recognize as being contributors towards making the man who is now described as a 'Melbourne icon.'
It was the haggard look of both defeat and barbarity mixed with lunacy that lifted me.
How did the desire to pursue your artistic and journalistic pursuits come to you and can you pinpoint the genesis for each?
My mother was a kind of improvisatory jazz speaker who talked in an entirely new way to me.
It seems to me that much of your work is imbued with a strong sense or need to reveal the truth coupled with a profound sense of justice and morality. Would this be a fair summation?
I have only ever worshipped two things that are truthfulness and persecution of beauty.
Can you recall for us the staging of your very first play, Ghosts, at La Mama?
My brother Chris was in it so it was an act of brotherly love just to go on each night and although the story of the play was abstract it was thrilling to act with my brother and other actors who I looked up to as professionals. Jill Foster played my long-suffering wife in it and it was heart-breaking last year to attend her funeral service because she also performed in my first one woman monodrama entitled ‘The Bridal Suite’.
You had written both a play and novel about Ronald Ryan. What, in particular, is it about Ryan's story that inspired you to bring his life and death into the public domain 40 plus years after his execution and how important, on a personal level, was it for you to do?
I didn’t want really to write a drama upon Ronald Ryan but the board of The Playbox Theatre were determined on it so in the end I gave it everything in me; it was hard to write in a way because lots of the stage dialogue sprang naturally from the interviews I conducted with people like Ronald’s wife Dorothy as well as jail guards and governors and police informants and so on. It was liberating to play to crowded houses and gratifying to win The Victorian Premiers Award for Drama.
Which play (or plays) have given you the most pleasure to write and why?
A comedy called ‘The Rotten Teeth show’ at The Pram Factory performed with my friend Ross Dixon as a macabre dentist who takes to me with a blunted circus hammer by way of anaesthetic; that was in 1978 and it toured to Adelaide with several of my friend Phil Motherwell’s dramas.
Can you discuss your work, Whiteley's Incredible Blue, in terms of the story it tells and the stuff you would like audiences to take with them after having viewed it.? This work will, of course, be showcasing at fortyfivedownstair in October.
This play is the result of hallucinations and visions I received 12 years ago during pneumonia and the pictures within the fever I had were so indelible they wrote the manuscript themselves in a way; the play is written as mantra and freefall poetry mixed with the remembrance of dream dialogues over the course of several flu seizures where I was so close to death the death of Brett came along for the ride. The play was dreamt not written.
What are three things that may surprise people to learn about Barry Dickens?
The incredible aspect of my life is that after years of anguish I am still writing with nothing but pleasure.
fortyfivedownstairs, in association with Melbourne Festival, presents the premiere of:
Whiteley's Incredible Blue … an hallucination written by Barry Dickins directed by Julian Meyrick Season: Thursday, 13 Sunday, 23 October at 8pm Friday and Saturday at 8pm and 10pm No performance Monday Venue: fortyfivedownstairs 45 Flinders Lane Bookings: 03 9662 9966 fortyfivedownstairs.com