Theatre Review: Brett & Wendy…A Love Story Bound By Art is both visually arresting & a restless drama (Parramatta’s Riverside Theatre until 27 January)

It should come as no shock that a theatre show about one of our nation’s greatest artists looks fabulous. The world premiere of Brett & Wendy…A Love Story Bound By Art is one vivid and lyrical look at two creative tour de forces. This production is an ambitious one that covers a lot in its slender 75-minute runtime. It mostly works but there are a few moments where the story suffers for the art’s sake.

The late Brett Whiteley was an amazing artist. He was the multi-award winner of the Archibald, Sulman and Wynne Prizes. He was a trailblazer and his legacy and influence continues to this day. His love affair with fellow artist Wendy Whiteley was legendary. She was his goddess, model, muse, wife and eventual enemy.

This production is created, directed and designed by Kim Carpenter (Monkey…Journey To The West). It is obvious that this is a passion project for the founder of the Theatre Of Image visual theatre company. Carpenter is an accomplished designer so it is unsurprising that this work has a sumptuous visual aspect to it. The set looks exactly like an artist’s studio and a large ladder to the right of the stage acts as a symbolic piece.

This production boasts three dancers: Naomi Hibberd, Robbie Curtis and Dean Elliott. They are choreographed by Lucas Jervies and their movements are used to great effect to evoke the poses that inspired Whiteley’s works. Their movements are so fluid and eye-popping. It is easy to see how an artist would appreciate capturing this form and beauty in all its finery.

Brett & Wendy doesn’t fit into a neat and tidy box. Instead it is messy and complex. While this means it captures the essence of Whiteley’s complex human spirit, it can make for uneven viewing at times. It can be hard for the audience to keep up with things when they have to negotiate: both young and old versions of the Whiteleys performing the story together one moment and some historical context in another. This is as well as: videos, projections of Whiteley’s artworks, a percussive soundtrack by Peter Kennard, some clips from songs by Nina Simone and Bob Dylan, and those aforementioned dancers. Confused? It sometimes feels like being lost in a whirlwind.

This Brett Whiteley story begins with his teenage years spent in Sydney. Elliott plays a young Brett living with his mother (Olivia Brown). This earlier, anarchic streak carries him into adulthood when he meets his match in Wendy (Leeanna Walsman (Wentworth)) and forges a charmed life and a creative career. Brett senior (Paul Gleeson (Home & Away) has a colourful adulthood filled with highs and lows. There are moments where Whiteley is the poster boy of the contemporary art scene and some fun times spent at the infamous Chelsea Hotel. There is also the backlash over his sprawling “American Dream” artwork and his addiction to heroin before his premature death at age 53.

While Carpenter and company should be applauded for tackling so much in this piece, you can’t help but shake the feeling that this is his “American Dream.” Carpenter has taken on a bit too much here. The fact is that Whiteley is so magnetic and fascinating you could write several shows about him and still only scratch the surface.

The Sunday matinee performance was plagued by a series of sound troubles. There were times when some of the actors were too low in the mix. There were other points where loud sound faults drowned out the other dialogue.

Walsman’s performance as Wendy was a sensitive and respectful one. But it was hard to connect with Gleeson’s performance as the adult Whiteley. Part of this could be on account of the fact that this larger than life character is at least in part unknowable – well, to the public anyway.

Brett & Wendy was a poetic show that promised a great art love story. It delivered a sensual and dramatic look at the overstuffed mind of an artist and his famous muse. Brett Whiteley was a restless soul in life and this piece certainly captures – for better or worse – this frenetic energy.

Photo credit: Fabian Astore.

The reviewer attended the matinee performance on 20 January.

Review score: three stars (out of five).

Brett & Wendy…A Love Story Bound By Art plays the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta until 27 January. For more information and tickets please visit: https://riversideparramatta.com.au/show/brett-and-wendy/.

Tags: , , , , , , ,