Left – Neil Pigot. Photos – Jeff Busby
After decades of heroin abuse, it is reasonable to assume that very few thoughts flowing through Brett Whiteley’s brain on the night he overdosed and died would have made much sense.
So it probably doesn’t matter that parts of Neil Pigot’s passionately delivered monologue as a dead/dying/dreaming/hallucinating Whiteley were drowned out by the (excellent) free-form jazz trio that shares his stage, and show. The rambling intent is there, with snatches of clarity and references to people, works and places that are instantly recognisable, amid a surreal diatribe that flows through memories, anger, fantasy, frivolity and regrets, until the artist is spent and only an echo of his life remains.
Apparently Whiteley loved to paint to music – often jazz – but more often in a blaze of six or more different streams forming a loud, chaotic cacophony as he worked. Learning that explains a lot about his art, but also gives a glimpse into his addled mind, which is also the mission behind Barry Dickins’ script.
Dickins, whose work reveals his fascination with human flaws and foibles, states: “Whiteley’s flamboyant style is recognised as swiftly as it is seen, but the soul of the man is utterly unknown.”
Disappointed at the loveless media backlash that followed Whiteley’s passing, Dickins penned the original text for Whiteley’s Incredible Blue as a tribute to the man who was Australia’s first artist superstar. The title comes from Whiteley’s love of the colour French Ultramarine and also Dickins’ view that it was a mistake – or blue – to stay in the lonely motel where he died.
First performed as a reading, the pared-back translation to a play works well, although the voiceovers, used to add impact or shape to certain scenes, were sometimes distracting. The music from the Calvert George Fine trio – comprising Robert George on percussion, Robert Calvert on sax and Pietro Fine on piano – is brilliant, often improvised, and the three are worth following in their own right.
Ironically, the warehouse atmosphere of fortyfivedownstairs, with its bare timber boards and high ceilings, is almost too atmospheric to convey the characterless room where Whiteley died. A bed, table, and two chairs – plus of course, bottle, smokes and a needle – are all the props Neil Pigot uses to conjure Whiteley’s crazed thoughts as he recalls his life’s inspirations, frustrations and regrets.
An eiderdown becomes a dove, heron, comfort and a needy infant.
Director Julian Meyrick writes that: “Whiteley’s is not about Brett Whiteley in any realistic sense. No attempt is made to tell the story of his life, nor does Neil Pigot … represent him in an imitative way,” and, yes, the universal pain of the creative spirit is there, as is the flawed addict, recognising his faults as a father, husband and human being, and these will always resonate across the years and across cultures.
But Pigot also becomes Whiteley incredibly well, with his languorous limbs, (grown out and freshly permed) Harpo Marx hair, black, long-sleeved top and mercurial flashes of acid and wit, and the script conjures up images of his home turf, around Sydney’s Lavender Bay, and of Wendy and Arkie.
Nearly 20 years since Whiteley died, it is good to remember his passing and how easily talent is lost; a visual reminder of his amazing legacy and works of beauty he created would have added a redeeming balance.
Whiteley’s Incredible Blue
by Barry Dickins
Directed by Julian Meyrick
Venue: fortyfivedownstairs | 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Dates: October 13 – 23, 2011
Times: Tuesday to Sun 8pm; Fri & Sat 8pm & 10pm
Duration: 55 minutes (no interval)
Tickets: Full $45, Conc $37.50, 10+ Group $40
Bookings: 03 9662 9966 | www.fortyfivedownstairs.com