In taking a deep dive into the world of the extraordinary and turbulent artistic partnership of Brett and Wendy Whiteley, theatremaker Kim Carpenter had to confront some of his conflicted feelings about his own art.
“This production is a passion project and it’s quite deep rooted for me because if I hadn’t become a theatre designer and then a director, I would have become a painter. I was very torn over which direction to take in my teen years. I went to John Olsen for advice and he was horrified that I might go into theatre,” Carpenter recalls. “He saw it as a bastardised art form.”
In the end, Carpenter chose NIDA over art school, “because it was a shorter course! I didn’t like the idea of being in an institution.
“But now I feel I’m getting toward the end of my career and I want to return to painting myself. I think that’s what attracted me to the idea of a story about the world of an artist – and Brett’s life was the most compelling story I could imagine.”
Carpenter is the founder of the Sydney-based Theatre of Image, Australia’s pre-eminent maker of image-based stage work for the past three decades. Brett and Wendy … A Love Story Bound By Art, which premieres at Riverside Theatres during Sydney Festival 2019, is one of the company’s most ambitious productions to date, blending dramatic scenes, dance, movement, digital projection and a live soundtrack.
Brett & Wendy traces the life of an artist and his muse from childhood on Sydney’s lower north shore, their adventures in London in the 1960s, the couple’s pivotal move to New York City in the 1970s and their return to Sydney, where Whiteley would create his iconic images of Sydney Harbour.
The story is derived from deep research into Whiteley’s life, conversations with Wendy in her Lavender Bay home, and meetings with friends and family.
“I don’t think many people know much about Brett’s childhood,” says Carpenter. “The great source for that is Brett’s sister Frannie Hopkirk who lives just outside of Bathurst. She’s a wonderfully gregarious person and from talking to her about Brett’s formative years, you get a picture of him as the Ginger Meggs of the neighbourhood. He was a terrible child, sometimes. He used to kidnap cats for ransom. I think a lot of that childhood anarchy stayed with him for the rest of his life and you see it in his paintings.”
Brett and Wendy’s story is a one of peaks and valleys, says Carpenter. “Obviously you have to be very selective but one of the peaks I’ve explored is when they moved to New York in 1967-68. It was a real hotspot at the time, with the civil rights struggle and the death of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Brett was in this extraordinary scene and he produced some of his greatest work. He really thought he could save the world through his art. There was a wonderful childlike naivety to him that was so engaging but also led to his downfall in many ways.”
Whiteley’s life and art is marked by dichotomy, Carpenter believes. “He loved nature, he loved beauty – he was obsessed by birds – but then there was the dark side. His story is perfect to tell as a piece of theatre.”
Heading the nine-strong cast are Paul Gleeson (Brett) and Leeanna Walsman (Wendy). Tony Llewellyn-Jones plays Lloyd Rees, the Australian landscape artist Whiteley, and many others of that generation, revered.
The three dancers in the production (choreographed by Lucas Jervies) represent “the internal world of the artist and the muse,” Carpenter explains. “As Brett picks up his brush and mixes his paints, that internal world takes over. The dancers become like human calligraphy.”
And while the image is paramount, music is a crucial part of the experience, Carpenter adds.
“I’ve worked with composer Peter Kennard many times before. He’s not only a great musician and percussionist in the studio, he’s also a great live musician.”
Kennard’s score for Brett & Wendy owes something to the Oscar-winning soundtrack to the 2014 film Birdman, starring Michael Keaton.
“I wanted something that conveyed the incredible restless energy of Brett,” says Carpenter. “I met him a couple of times and he was almost exhausting to be around. He had an incredible curiosity. That’s what I want the music and the show to reflect.”