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Playwright's addiction to an Australian art great: Barry Dickins interview with The Age

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The Age newspaper
Written by Robin Usher
October 1, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

VETERAN Melbourne playwright Barry Dickins hates heroin, which puts him at odds with the subject of his latest production, the artist Brett Whiteley, who is thought to have died of a heroin overdose after more than a decade of addiction.

But Dickins has been fascinated with the painter since he met him during a Melbourne exhibition more than 40 years ago. He was commissioned by the Melbourne Theatre Company’s artistic director, Simon Phillips, to write a one-man show about Whiteley in 2000 following the artist’s death in a hotel in the small town of Thirroul, south of Sydney, in 1992.

Dickins has wrestled with the work ever since and it is finally being produced in the Melbourne Festival from October 13. His book on the artist, Black + Whiteley, was published in 2002 after extensive interviews, including with the painter’s wife, Wendy.

”It was based on conversations about him, but it was really all my invention,” Dickins says.

The play is similarly impressionistic. ”It is certainly not stuffed full of verifiable facts,” he says. ”It is a poem on Whiteley set in limbo so he is free to comment on all that has happened before and after he died, darting between heaven and hell.”

He explains the title, Whiteley’s Incredible Blue, is a play on words, reflecting the artist’s love of ultramarine and also the ”blue” that led him to take the final shot of heroin that killed him. Dickins says it was the treatment of the drug that caused his first draft to be rejected by the MTC. ”Simon said that while I hated heroin, the play had to show that Whiteley loved it.”

His breakthrough came when he caught a dose of summer flu while working on the script. ”I had a fever and hallucinated that I saw Whiteley calling to me in my front garden. He was surrounded by pink flamingoes and asked if I had any amyl nitrate.”

He laughs, and asks, ”Who needs drugs? I have a horror of them.” But the key to the work became treating it as a hallucination and the production is set in a hallucinatory hotel room. Dickins says Whiteley loved birds and quotes him saying he had been so hurt by human experience that he would prefer to be a bird.

Whiteley was one of Australia’s greatest artists. At 22 he was well known in London after a solo show in Bond Street in 1962 and was the youngest painter to have a work acquired by the Tate Gallery. Dickins describes how he first encountered the painter as a naive working-class boy. ”It was in a huge furniture store in Smith Street [Collingwood] where the show was held because the work was too big to hang in a gallery,” he says. ”He was a friendly and warm man that people couldn’t help wanting to be with.”

But he was also a fantastic eccentric. Dickins says Whiteley’s hair was in an Afro style and he kept running his fingers through it. When asked why, he explained he kept the phone numbers of women he knew written on strips of paper braided into the hair.

The MTC staged two readings of the play, one with Kim Gyngell and the other with Neil Pigot, who is performing in the festival production. But the company never produced the show and he says interest in it was revived by the proprietor of the venue, fortyfivedownstairs, Mary-Lou Jelbart, and the director, Julian Meyrick.

Dickins says plans to show slides of the art had to be abandoned when Wendy, who controls the copyright on the paintings, refused to give permission. The solution in the new production is to have a live jazz band, The Calvert George Fine trio, to portray the impact of the art and of the effect of heroin.

A collector offered to lend a Whiteley painting for the production, but Dickins says it would have been impossible to keep it secure. ”I love his work, but could you imagine one hanging on stage as a prop? That would be unreal.”

He says one of his inspirations to write the play was the scorn shown by a former friend, critic Robert Hughes, after Whiteley died.

‘He didn’t seem to have a shred of pity, even though Brett was painting at the top of his form when he died.”

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