Review by Alison Croggon for Theatre Notes on 14 October. See here in it’s full context.
La beauté, “Beauty is difficult, Yeats” said Aubrey Beardsley
when Yeats asked why he drew horrors
or at least not Burne-Jones
and Beardsley knew he was dying and had to
make his hit quickly
Hence no more B-J in his product.
So very difficult, Yeats, beauty so difficult.
– Ezra Pound, Cantos
I left Whiteley’s Incredible Blue last night with Pound’s verse circling around my head. Barry Dickins’s new play, subtitled “an hallucination”, is almost an essay on the proposition of the difficulty and necessity of beauty, through the medium of the enfant terrible of Australian art, Brett Whiteley.
Whiteley is a compelling figure: part artist, part charlatan, myth-maker extraordinaire, he died of a heroin overdose in 1992, aged only 53, in a country motel. So much of his work is trashy product for the cannibalistic art market that at once made and destroyed him, and yet his sublime gift for colour and line gave us some of us our most iconic paintings. Dickins, however, isn’t interested in moralising, nor in biography. What he has created instead is a poetic riff that recreates Whiteley’s restless imaginative excesses, a theatrical meditation on art, beauty and self-destruction.
The title not only recalls Whiteley’s fondness for the colour ultramarine blue, but colloquially suggests Whiteley’s argument (“blue”) with life itself. It’s probably Dickins’s best play, and certainly a play only he could have written: here his Dylan Thomas-esque ear for rhythm and colour is given full rein, looping and relooping in an avalanche of imagery. These flights are grounded by an earthy self-awareness, a deprecating humour that pricks the impulse towards romanticising the artist, seeking instead to make luminous the sensual passion that informed his paintings. The blur of the sentimental is always a danger in a work like this, and this play never goes there.
The conceit is simple. Brett Whiteley’s soul is in purgatory, trapped in the squalid motel room in which he died. He is played with a startling verisimilitude by Neil Pigot, who with the addition of a curly wig looks almost exactly like him, but it’s clear from the opening moments that this isn’t intended to be a realistic representation. Pigot plays him as a clumsy dancer, half child, half cynic, regretful and regretless, looking back at the failures of a passionate life from the dispassion of death, a collision of quicksilver and human flesh borne down by the gravity of mortality. It’s a bravura performance, exact and compelling, which drills into the observation that might be Whiteley’s epitaph: “I’m not good. I’m a good artist.”
Julian Meyrick’s production is carefully designed to frame and amplify the text. The set is simple: a wide stage, featuring only a messy double bed that recalls Tracy Ermin’s squalid autobiographical My Bed, a side table loaded with pills, a radio on the floor. To one side is the band (Pietro Fine, Robert George and Robert Calvert). The art is suggested visually by the barest of cues – a mobile of birds in flight to the right of the stage and a few projected graphics. The paintings are principally invoked through music, Whiteley’s line echoed in the soaring notes of a saxophone.
Hallucinatory stage directions are read in voice-over by Richard Bligh, Keonie Dodd and Daniela Farinacci, sometimes overlapping each other, punctuating the various movements of the monologue with vivid, oneiric mise en scenes. This is a reality created almost entirely through Dickins’s words.
I wished that the acoustics at Fortyfive Downstairs were less muddy, as the music sometimes overwhelms the text. And occasionally Meyrick’s directorial eye slackens: Pigot’s physicalisations – playful dance, jumping on the bed – can tip over into the merely silly. When Pigot’s gestures, however odd they are, unite with the extremities of the text, it creates a potent expressiveness, but this is not unfaltering.