Melbourne Festival review: Whiteley's Incredible Blue, Foley ~ theatre notes

Friday, October 14, 2011

Melbourne Festival review: Whiteley's Incredible Blue, Foley

La beauté, “Beauty is difficult, Yeats” said Aubrey Beardsley
when Yeats asked why he drew horrors
or at least not Burne-Jones
and Beardsley knew he was dying and had to
make his hit quickly

Hence no more B-J in his product.

So very difficult, Yeats, beauty so difficult.

- Ezra Pound, Cantos

I left Whiteley's Incredible Blue last night with Pound's verse circling around my head. Barry Dickins's new play, subtitled "an hallucination", is almost an essay on the proposition of the difficulty and necessity of beauty, through the medium of the enfant terrible of Australian art, Brett Whiteley.

Whiteley is a compelling figure: part artist, part charlatan, myth-maker extraordinaire, he died of a heroin overdose in 1992, aged only 53, in a country motel. So much of his work is trashy product for the cannibalistic art market that at once made and destroyed him, and yet his sublime gift for colour and line gave us some of us our most iconic paintings. Dickins, however, isn't interested in moralising, nor in biography. What he has created instead is a poetic riff that recreates Whiteley's restless imaginative excesses, a theatrical meditation on art, beauty and self-destruction.

The title not only recalls Whiteley's fondness for the colour ultramarine blue, but colloquially suggests Whiteley's argument ("blue") with life itself. It's probably Dickins's best play, and certainly a play only he could have written: here his Dylan Thomas-esque ear for rhythm and colour is given full rein, looping and relooping in an avalanche of imagery. These flights are grounded by an earthy self-awareness, a deprecating humour that pricks the impulse towards romanticising the artist, seeking instead to make luminous the sensual passion that informed his paintings. The blur of the sentimental is always a danger in a work like this, and this play never goes there.

The conceit is simple. Brett Whiteley's soul is in purgatory, trapped in the squalid motel room in which he died. He is played with a startling verisimilitude by Neil Pigot, who with the addition of a curly wig looks almost exactly like him, but it's clear from the opening moments that this isn't intended to be a realistic representation. Pigot plays him as a clumsy dancer, half child, half cynic, regretful and regretless, looking back at the failures of a passionate life from the dispassion of death, a collision of quicksilver and human flesh borne down by the gravity of mortality. It's a bravura performance, exact and compelling, which drills into the observation that might be Whiteley's epitaph: "I'm not good. I'm a good artist."

Julian Meyrick's production is carefully designed to frame and amplify the text. The set is simple: a wide stage, featuring only a messy double bed that recalls Tracy Ermin's squalid autobiographical My Bed, a side table loaded with pills, a radio on the floor. To one side is the band (Pietro Fine, Robert George and Robert Calvert). The art is suggested visually by the barest of cues - a mobile of birds in flight to the right of the stage and a few projected graphics. The paintings are principally invoked through music, Whiteley's line echoed in the soaring notes of a saxophone.

Hallucinatory stage directions are read in voice-over by Richard Bligh, Keonie Dodd and Daniela Farinacci, sometimes overlapping each other, punctuating the various movements of the monologue with vivid, oneiric mise en scenes. This is a reality created almost entirely through Dickins's words.

I wished that the acoustics at Fortyfive Downstairs were less muddy, as the music sometimes overwhelms the text. And occasionally Meyrick's directorial eye slackens: Pigot's physicalisations - playful dance, jumping on the bed - can tip over into the merely silly. When Pigot's gestures, however odd they are, unite with the extremities of the text, it creates a potent expressiveness, but this is not unfaltering. It made me think of the sort of precise physicalisations Anita Hegh created in Peter Evans's production of The Yellow Wallpaper: the performance language here is not as sharp. But these are quibbles. This is a sound production of a challenging and complex text, from a writer who should not be forgotten.

It felt serendipitous that I should see Foley on the same day as Whiteley's Incredible Blue: it was a day for Australian icons. Gary Foley, Aboriginal activist, uncompromising anarchist and unrepentant larrikin, is a living repository of a fascinating and shamefully little-known aspect of Australian history: the battle for self-determination and land rights for Aboriginal people. Rachel Maza Long's production is basically a lecture tarted up with a cardboard set that recalls a television talk show, with four screens showing various media - photographs, graphics, television footage. It's plain, unpretentious theatre, and absolutely riveting.

As with Ilbijerri's Jack Charles Versus The Crown, this is an exercise in autobiographical theatre. Gary Foley presents himself in his "native habitat" as an Aboriginal historian, which is a room scattered with archive boxes. Late in life, he tells us, he became a creature he despised, an academic (spit), graduating with honours in history from Melbourne University (spit), and now can be observed in his rooms at Victoria University. From here, he tells us the story of his life, which - as Foley was part of some of its most important events - is also an introduction to the wider history of black struggle in Australia.

It's a warts and all presentation, and often hilarious. It opens with a video of the young Foley on the lawns of Parliament House, being buttonholed by a disapproving matron in a twinset. At first he attempts to explain the aims of the protest, but soon he loses patience and roundly abuses her. When Foley himself, sans beard and long hair, 61 years old, steps onto the stage, he tells us that this angry young man is dead. "Now I'm a grumpy old man," he says.

Foley's often controversial life is full of colourful anecdote. He was one of the founders of the Aboriginal Embassy on the lawn of Parliament House in Canberra, a member of Black Power, which started the first free legal and medical services for Aboriginals (or anyone) in Australia, and even co-designed the Aboriginal flag. Importantly, he is also an actor. Indigenous theatre has been from its beginning a political theatre, the most consciously political we have; it's here that the very European notion of theatre as social revolution exists as a living thing.

Foley was a member of Sydney's Black Theatre, founded under Bob Maza at the Nimrod, and was in the cast of the ground-breaking 1972 political revue Basically Black. This is a legendary production, and one of the highlights of Foley is a short showing of some of the sketches filmed by the ABC for a pilot. The series was never made, presumably because it was considered "too political". On the evidence of those few minutes, Basically Black is the funniest tv show that was never made. You can only sigh for what could have been.

He outlines the history of Aboriginal activism against the background of the notorious White Australia policy and the wider international Civil Rights movement. This history reaches back to Federation, and forward as Foley traces his own involvement in the protests of the 1970s and the various governmental betrayals of the Aboriginal quest for Land Rights (it finishes by making the point that Native Title is an entirely different question to Land Rights).

Foley highlighted the shameful fact that I know much more about the US Civil Rights movement than I do about the history of Indigenous activism here. Even so, I had no idea that the early 20th century boxer Jack Johnson - in his time the most famous black person on the planet - was a prominent activist, or of his far-reaching influence on Indigenous politics here. This history is not only necessary; it's fascinating. If nothing else, that these stories remain largely untold demonstrates how colonial Australian culture remains.

And you'll seldom be taught history as entertainingly as in this show. Invigoratingly irreverent, driven by an unflinching lifelong passion for justice, it makes absorbing theatre. As the Age said of Foley himself: "If his ego is epic, as his opponents allege, so is his story." Foley's the one to tell it, and you'd be mad to miss it.

Pictures: Top: Neil Pigot as Brett Whiteley. Photo: Jeff Busby. Bottom, Gary Foley as Gary Foley.

Whiteley's Incredible Blue by Barry Dickins, directed by Julian Meyrick. Designed by Meredith Rogers, lighting by Kerry Saxby. Performed by Neil Pigot, with musicians Robert Calvert, Robert George, Pietro Fine. Melbourne Festival, fortyfivedownstairs, until October 23.

Foley, written, performed and co-devised by Gary Foley, directed by Rachael Maza Long. Co-devised by Jon Hawkes, co-written by Tony Birch. Audio and lighting by Danny Pettingill, costume and design by Emily Barrie. Ilbijerri Theatre, Melbourne Festival. Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, until October 15.


Cameron Woodhead said...

At the risk of playing to the gallery of people who think we're the David and Margaret of the Melbourne theatre scene ... Whiteley's Incredible Blue "almost an essay on the proposition of the difficulty and necessity of beauty"?

I have to disagree with you there, Alison.

More after my review appears in tomorrow's Age...

Ashlee said...

Hmmmmm sounds a great review... but I don't really get it! :)

Alison Croggon said...

I'll look out for your review. I'll take up the cudgels for Dickins on this one: to my mind this script earns the right to speak directly about beauty - the "B-word", as art critic Dave Hickey calls it - and God knows that few people have the courage to do that.

Alison Croggon said...

Gracious. Just read your review, Cameron. Needless to say, I couldn't disagree more: and I guess in the end it's about differing sensibilities. I suspect our differences devolve on your scepticism about Meyrick's statement that the artists "had to" make it, "which makes the process sound like a compulsion every bit as rapacious as Whiteley's heroin addiction". Given that the whole play is about that kind of necessity, the inability not to make. Even that mischievous sceptic Ionesco says artists make art because they can't do otherwise, and this play picks apart the pathologies of addiction (and the blindness of egotism) with a deal of pitiless insight. I think you've missed Dickins's quality of ecstatic Romanticism - forging through the grotesque, the mundane and the abject towards a glimpse of the sublime - which is rare anywhere, but especially rare in Australian writing.

Anne-Marie Peard said...

I went last night. I've never seen a 45downstairs audience whoop before. The bliss of being part of a group for whom a polite clap would have been an insult.

I was a +1, so I don't have to write about it - and was allowed to enjoy without the critical hat on (what colour is that one?).

I was totally with it from the beginning. I loved hearing Barry play with words and language. The aussie-aussie-aussie absurdness of the wombat painted womb to the ego-driven faux philosophy of an artist so driven by ego that he believes his own philosophy.

The reflections about Arkie added gave it the complexity of regret and a peek at the man under the artist mask without resorting to sentimentality.

I wonder how much a knowledge of BW's work shapes an audience's understanding, so am looking forward to hearing about it from people who don't know BW.

Lee Bemrose said...

For Anne-Marie, my contribution to the discussion, for what it's worth:

Indigo Ruby said...

Obviously this is a bit old, but I still wanted to post it!
Emma French

I like the work of Barry Dickins, and I love the way the writing in this play carousels from the lyrical to the mundane to the dark to the wryly self-depricating to the archly clever to the nonsensical. ''My mother's womb was painted by a wombat.'' is not bad writing; it is just a bizarre thread depicting a drug-addled mind. I do think that trauma and innovation go hand-in-hand, since both lead right out of any comfort zone, and that a drive to create beauty is often a drive fuelled by a sense of lost wholeness.
Creating beauty creates an impossible benchmark to live up to, in fact it emphasizes the disparity so that there is a polarisation, a paradox: the more beauty you register, the more you see – and possibly create – that which is not beauty.

The premise that Whiteley is communing with us from beyond the grave adds a wonderfully eerie, otherworldly flavour to the piece Having said that, I do think it is possible for a piece to be poetic and surreal yet have a narrative thread which gradually builds metaphors. This work does not achieve that.
It lacks colour, tone, subtlety. The whole thing was just too….LOUD. The musicians were fabulous but totally upstaged – not to mention drowned out – the acting. And as much as the actor ressembles Whiteley physically, he frequently speaks at the audience, rather than to us. Restless intensity is all very well to a point, but this piece is supposed to be depicting someone’s disturbed internal world, and as such needs to traverse far more emotional landscape than it managed. Sentimentality was avoided, but so was much depth of vulnerability ie.any moving exploration of the ravaged, broken man that Whitely seems to have been.

Of course it is hard to do a monologue well; the best one I have ever seen was Karen Corbett in To The Outside World (1990); she had apparently done eight years of psychotherapy – and it showed. The underlying cause for the artist’s torment is delivered in a glib throw-away line towards the end of the play: his mother was jealous of his talent and abandonned him. I do not doubt that this was the core issue underpinning the mess Whitely made of his life – but if so then there were many ways the writing could have shown that, so that by the time it was acknowledged it could have been built up to be a lot more powerful.

The writing suffers from over-wordiness where images and stillness would have been far more powerful, and the use of the space is very pedestrian. Voiceover is a tool best used sparingly; it was squirm-making to hear the disembodied and robotically-delivered voices of other actors giving a blow-by-blow account of what the actor was doing. They just served to distract and take us out of the moment and into our heads. To depict dissassociation by confusing the audience is a mark of failure.

There is indeed “an avalanche of imagery”, but describing images is, in my opinion, not only redundant but aggravating in a visual medium like theatre, unless you are evoking a metaphor. An example of this used well is.the stunning idea of unpacking the ocean as you would a chest of drawers. I liked the paper flock of birds in the design, but apart from the stunningly evocative image of a tree made of blue light projected onto Whiteley’s body – understandably the still photo of the play given to the press – the visuals were mundane. I am not suggesting they needed to be complex or flashy; in one-person-shows I have seen ephemeral yet stark and incredibly powerful imagery created by the actor; the play seems to lack this kind of sensibility.

Also, I think a better title would have been simply: Whitely’s Blue because “blue” still gets to be a noun meaning the colour he was known for and an argument (as already noted by Alison Croggan), but also could be seen as a pun on the “white” in his name. Not only this, but the apostrophe would then be ambiguous, and blue could be an adjective ie. Whitely is unhappy – which he obviously was.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Indigo Riby - not odd at all. Thanks for the thoughtful response.