This image: Kim Carpenter
Featured image: Brett & Wendy in Bali 1980. Copyright Wendy Whiteley, The Brett Whiteley studio

As part of Sydney Festival 2019, the compelling new drama, BRETT & WENDY …A LOVE STORY BOUND BY ART, will bring to life the tumultuous world of iconic artist Brett Whiteley and his wife, muse, model and confidante, Wendy.

It has been written, directed and designed by Kim Carpenter who is the founder and Artistic Director of Theatre of Image – an Australian company producing works for the past 30 years.  The Guide had a very special opportunity to chat in depth about this upcoming production.  A very generous Kim shared his passionate vision for the project.

SAG:      Your media release says you were captivated by this iconic Australian couple and you were looking for a way to bring it to the stage. How did it occur to you to do it this way?
KIM:      I have done pieces about artists, in the past, quite some time ago. About Lloyd Rees and Arthur Boyd and a more generic piece about Australian artists which was called ‘Little Beauties’ which was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery and had a return season this year. And it was originally done in, I think 2011, so it’s a subject that obsesses me and I guess because my own background.

When I decided to go into theatre, it was a choice between … would I become an independent artist and a painter or would I go into theatre as a designer and theatre maker?  So I decided, only through logistics.  A 5 year course at East Sydney Tech was far too long and two years at NIDA was better.  So go for two years. So it was all a bit accidental.

I used to go to John Olsen’s studio in Paddington, at the same time, in the holiday periods and weekends, and he was horrified that I would actually want to be involved in the theatre, and be a designer as opposed to a painter.  Because he thought that I would be bastardising my art. But he never went to theatre so I eventually learned to discount although it upset me at the time.

And so in saying all this,  the subject of a painter going in and facing the blank canvas, or blank piece of paper, every day and being self-motivated and with as a prolific output as Brett had, is a constant feeding of their heart and soul!  And it’s not collaborative..  like theatre is collaborative and therefore it’s a happier place to be, an easy place to be, because you’re surrounded by like-minded people and it’s a team and you’re all going in the same direction.

What’s interesting about so many artists, in particular about Brett, was that he had a soul mate in Wendy.  And, of course, we know that unravelled but it was a long, long association and she believed, and I believe, that he always loved her. And she was the one.  Despite the affairs and the groupies and to this day she upholds his legacy so incredibly well.

SAG:      You said ‘tumultuous’ is a good description for that relationship. How do you find that balance in a theatre piece between any prurient interest of the public and the obvious bonds to keep these people in each other’s lives.
KIM:      Well the fact that it was a tumultuous relationship and there were these peaks and valleys within it automatically lent itself to drama. Theatre has to have conflict. It has to have drama and, not only were his paintings and drawings dramatic, his life was dramatic and therefore there is a great synergy between art and life. 

So much of his life experience, his life was so extraordinarily vivid, went into his work.  Like the famous painting ‘Alchemy’ which is at the Whiteley studio in Surry Hills.  It’s 18 panels and is really the self-portrait. You go through all the decades from his childhood through to 1992 when he died, each decade tells another story. And there are paintings that are absolute benchmarks of what was happening with his life at the time.

So it wasn’t difficult, once I got Wendy’s trust, to embark on researching it in terms of a theatre work.  Because the characters are very vivid and they’re not conventional. In speaking to their friends, their neighbours, their colleagues, this was all substantiated and I found it not a hard thing to put together as a piece of theatre.

SAG:      So in the research you must’ve had a lot to do with the paintings themselves.  Brett Whiteley’s work is part of Australian DNA.  In the creation of your work, how do you separate your favourites from what an audience sees, reveres or reviles.
KIM:      From my experience, the painting that is most significant is ‘The balcony 2’. That ultramarine blue painting that hangs permanently at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the paintings of Lavender Bay and the harbour are the most accessible for the general public. When you get to the period of Christie … the paintings of John Christie, the serial killer that he was so fascinated by, most of the general public are not going to engage with this and certainly young people have never heard of it.

So there is this huge range of work and when we travel through his life, and we do, the whole arc from childhood to the present there’s just so many different layers and facets to explore.

And the way we are doing that, all the recognisable characters like Frannie Hopkirk, Brett sister,  Wendy herself,  Michael Driscoll who Wendy had an affair with for seven years.  They are all real characters, flesh and blood characters, realised by actors and text.  But there are also dancers. And the dances become the muse … which can be Wendy, it can be his inner self,the child within, so they create the line, the form, the shape of the paintings.

So when we see him standing with paintbrush in hand on stage and the music takes off because there’s live music on stage well as recorded music,  the dances fulfil the vision of the paintings through their physicality.  So the choreographer Lucas Jervies is very much like a co-director in this piece.

SAG:      So just looking forward to what we will see, is the visual context more secret garden or the works or a blend of both?
KIM:      To give overarching context, visually, it is set in a fairly generic studio, artist’s studio but it’s fairly stylised and it’s like a dreamscape so it’s got a creamy mellow feel to it. There’s lots of canvases that are stacked against each other, a big workbench, there is the cane chair that he used to sit in.  So that’s the set and it gets projected upon. And projections are often sequences and transitions that take us from say from London to New York.  And in his first experience in New York, in the Hotel Chelsea so that has animated footage done by the digital designer with me. 

And then the paintings, Brett’s paintings themselves are used to represent different periods.  So at the end of the scene, we might see him working in the studio and the canvases have sprung to life and integrated with the activity of him painting… and at the end … what comes up on the screen is say ‘The balcony 2’. And we see that’s what they’ve been creating.

So the paintings are used throughout the piece like that. They are used as benchmarks to mark particular times like in the sequence where they lived in New York 1967, 1968,  in a time of great turmoil, and Brett produced ‘The American dream’ … another 18 panelled masterwork … this whole period is then presented at the end with ‘The American dream’ because that’s the impact that that period had on him.

SAG:      Yes and that’s when the relationship was at its strongest, was it not?
KIM:      Yes she was the protector and then it went to the halcyon days at Lavender Bay.  It pretty much nearly killed him producing that huge work and it was rejected by the art dealers and it was his first big knock back and sense of abandonment so he said … bugger it let’s go to the land of sharks and sheep.  He had a great turn of phrase.

SAG:      It has been a real joy to talk with you but one last question before I reluctantly let you go.  I’m interested in the music.  The media release says percussive score by Peter Kennard but there is also Dylan, Bowie and Nina Simone in there. 
KIM:      The Nina Simone ‘I Put a Spell On You’ is used in the sequence in London where they are very much in love. Wendy saved her pennies and joined Brett in Europe when he was on the Russell Drysdale scholarship.  The Simone music comes into that period when they … it’s been described, they had the most extraordinary way of dancing. They were sort of entangled and no one could describe exactly what the dancing was  … it was distinctly theirs.

Bob Dylan comes into it at a later point and there’s various musical influences that are in integrated into the overall score. But the score has that this percussive element to have that constant energy that Brett had.  And people expected him to burn out much earlier that he actually did.  He went at such an incredible pace and that energy in the score is essential. The percussive energy.

BRETT & WENDY …A LOVE STORY BOUND BY ART from the Theatre of Image will play at Riverside Theatres 18th to 27th January 2019 as part of the Sydney Festival.

All things Sydney Festival:
Sydney Festival Website and Digital Program
Sydney Festival 19 Teaser Video