Barry Dickins

During his lifetime, Brett Whiteley's flamboyant lifestyle more-or-less overshadowed the very art that made him famous. During the 60s, 70s and 80s even those uninterested in the art world knew about Brett Whiteley; internationally famous at the age of 22 and living a life of sex, drugs and art ever since. He mingled with the likes of Bob Dylan and polarised the populace with an exotic nature that often didn't sit right with average Australians and the Australian art elite alike, many of whom viewed him as a reckless upstart undeserving of his preternatural talent.

When Whiteley died of a drug overdose in 1992, the crescendo of gossip and superiority peaked as the biographies hit the bookshops. In his death, Whiteley had probably never polarised us more.

Amongst the many biographies was Black And Whiteley: In Search Of Brett by artist and writer Barry Dickins. As the title would suggest, this is a compassionate, non-judgemental biography, and indeed his new play, Whiteley's Incredible Blue, is also an intimate look at the mind of one our greatest artists and most colourful characters. In talking about this one-man performance featuring actor Neil Pigot, Dickins talks of poetry and dance, music and mystical manners, and drug-dealing Pink Flamingoes. All so very pure Whiteley.

Barry DickinsThe title of a play is generally our first impression of it. Given the various definitions of the word 'blue', tell us a little about the title. Is it just about the colour?
I am not very good at naturalism in the theatre and have become intensely bored myself when a play suffers from advanced hyper realism, which has become popular today. My debt to symbolism, surrealism and abstraction is that those forms seem better suited to lyrical theatre than trying to show what is really there. Brett had a persuasion and addiction to French ultramarine blue; and he loved the colour because it was so incurably poetic. The title is a play on words really since it was a fatal mistake or blue to live in the motel he overdosed in.

Is it true that much of the play came to you during hallucinations when you were very unwell? I'm curious about the process of bringing ideas/words/images that came to you when in a state of delirium into the waking world and then to the stage.
It was just a chest bug or severe and unexpected cold but it seemed more like pneumonia because I was so overheated. I became acquainted for some reason to unnatural sight, like seeing what's not there, and I had finished a first draft of the play that was too true or not me; the hallucination was lucky because seeing my subject alive through my bedroom window, talking and joking with the dead is a perfectly natural thing for a poet like me to do. I hadn't imagined him but really saw him in my bamboo garden and he was trying to purchase drugs from pink flamingos. You really can't hallucinate better than that. The whole play came in a dream.

Do you reckon Brett, or his spirit, was around you at that time?
Although I'm a heathen I believe in the spirit world and maybe he felt like conversing with me too, as I was trying so hard to breathe his wit back to life.

How well do you feel you know Brett Whiteley?
I feel intimately close to his condition and mystical manners because I am that way myself. Obsessed and competitive and as lost as Christ upon the cross.

There are many impressions of Brett that the general public have. What impression will your play leave us with?
That everyone should be remembered whether they are artists or not. I was devastated by the elite and dismissive behaviour of his critics at the time of his overdose and my only aim in this new play is to show his quixotic brilliance of action and ideas and also what a great raconteur he was or is, depending of course on whether you bother to read what he put down in print, not that I have quoted a single syllable of his. I need the crowd to mourn him properly.

How long do you think it will be before Whiteley's art finally overshadows his life? Or has it in fact already done this?
I think my play will bring his character back to life and show his gifts at verbal gymnastics so he is both abstract poet as well as symbolist actor. The play should give his playfulness and clownish soul a new appreciation and people can see what fun it may have been to be with him as opposed to dreary reproductions of his famed pictures without the character or characters he was.

What do you think Brett would think of the play?
I am certain he'd pay for a ticket and thoroughly approve of it as he approved of freedom of expression and freedom of censorship and freedom of expressionism.

Neil Pigot is not necessarily someone I would have pictured as playing the artist. Tell us about his casting and what qualities he brings to the production.
Neil is a beautiful dancer, as it turns out, and dances exotically in the same way his model used to dance up to the easel to get on with it; he is also possessed of a deep and mellow voice that is never an impersonation but has a quality that carries my script through to the chairs in the small theatre that is so personal and effortless and he fetches the necessary panache you need to caress the words that cascade from him.

And of the production – after imagining and writing the thing, how does it feel for you now that it's coming to life for others to see?
It is just so heartening to finally see the play come alive with the team including old friends the improvisatory jazz musicians enjoying working so closely together with the director and associate director who is also the designer; the excitement is gratifying because it is great to see anything come to life in a time of terrible gloom. My opening night guest is my son Louis who is 16; he's a good critic of my writing and he told me he really liked the reading two years ago so I am hopeful he will like the latest interpretation too.

What is your favourite Brett Whiteley story/anecdote/quote?
The story of him keeping girlfriends' phone numbers written in biro on band aids in his curly hair so he could have whoever he felt like.

If you could have a dinner party with Brett and a few others, who would they be?
It would have to include Lloyd Rees who went painting around Bathurst with him, and possibly Sir Russell Drysdale who painted with him too... and Bob Dylan who once said 'You can't draw, man. It's me who can do that as you well know, man'.

Which of Brett's paintings capture the essence of your play?
The American Dream.

Which line or passage from your play best captures the essence of Whiteley's Incredible Blue?
The very last line in the play is 'You have to look after yourself', says someone in his memory to which he quips 'Oh yes, and how is that to be done?'

Whiteley's Incredible Blue by Barry Dickins opens Thursday 13 October, 2011 at fortyfivedownstairs. Further details»

Image credit
Top right – Barry Dickins. Photo – Jeff Busby

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