As one of Australia’s most celebrated artists, Brett Whitley’s story has been told in a 2016 biography by Ashleigh Wilson, as well as having inspired numerous works for the stage and screen (in July, Opera Australia will present the world premiere of Whiteley, further honouring his life and work.)
As part of the Sydney Festival, Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres hosted the world premiere of Brett and Wendy … A Love Story Bound by Art. This piece has come to the stage care of Kim Carpenter’s Theatre of Image, a visual theatre company that has recently shifted its focus to producing work for older audiences. According to Carpenter, this production has been constructed drawing on material from interviews, conversations, books, observations and personal experiences. Carpenter, who is the creator, director and designer of the work, describes having created the script like a collage.
Brett and Wendy … A Love Story Bound by Art reflects on Whiteley’s life from his early years. At a young age, Whiteley is played by Dean Elliot and then later by Paul Gleeson. It canvasses his relationship with Wendy Julius (Leeanna Walsman), the woman who eventually became his wife, from the time of their meeting in the late 1950s, when he was 17 and she was 15, through to the disintegration of their marital relationship in the late 1980s. Along the way, their life together involved time in Europe, marrying in London in 1962 (where their daughter Arkie was born), living in New York City and in Fiji before returning to Sydney. It deals with his relationships and, of course, his relationship with heroin, which he believed to be part of his creativity but also responsible for his early death.
Over the course of 70 minutes, a cavalcade of events are woven into the piece and we’re given glimpses of other key figures in Whiteley’s life, including his sister, Frannie (Jeanette Cronin), his mother, Beryl (Olivia Brown), and his father, Clem, and fellow artist Lloyd Rees (both played by Tony Llewellyn-Jones), who inspired Whiteley from the time he saw his paintings at a Sydney exhibition at the age of 15. Events are underscored by composer and musician Peter Kennard. There are many striking images and Carpenter’s expansive set, which turns the Lennox Theatre into a large art studio, makes excellent use of the space and is an obviously fitting backdrop. Sian James-Holland enhances the set’s impact by utilising lights to wonderful effect. Whiteley’s paintings and the important locations in his life are used in beautiful projections (by digital artist Fabian Astore) as a way of signposting his work and his environment.
Lucas Jervies’ choreography is a standout feature of this production. Particularly impressive is his interpretation of Whiteley’s fixation on serial killer John Christie’s murders and the influence of those events on Whiteley’s artwork. Dance movement here lyrically depicts disturbing violence and it’s beautifully performed by Robbie Curtis and Naomi Hibberd. The dance effectively carries the narrative, sometimes even more poignantly than the dialogue.
What the production lacks is a narrative structure that progresses in a manner that makes this truly compelling. It is described as a love story between Brett and Wendy, but that love story doesn’t appear to feature front and centre here – the relationship between them and what it meant in terms of his development as an artist. There is a great deal packed into the story in what is quite a short running time, so perhaps a sharper focus on select details would benefit this work. The concept of telling Whiteley’s story in a production driven by its visuals is certainly apt and worthy, however the shaping of the drama in the piece requires further attention.
Brett and Wendy … A Love Story Bound by Art commemorates a virtuoso and a life that contributed a remarkable body of work to the world of visual arts. Given his legacy, it’s little wonder the story of this Australian artist continues to fascinate and draw in audiences more than a quarter of a century after his death.