Vincent Willem Van Gogh was a Dutch Post Impressionist painter who lived throughout Europe from 1853 to 1890. In a single decade he is alleged to have created over 2,100 artworks including 860 oil paintings. Although there are collections of his work, both public and private, a good proportion of it was looted during the Second World War by the Nazis. Some of it was returned and some remains hidden from our contemporary eyes.
In Nicholas Wright’s award winning 2002 play, Vincent In Brixton, we meet Vincent Van Gogh as a very gauche 20 year-old trying to obtain lodgings in London having come over to work as an art dealer from Holland. The play is set in the early 1870s and Van Gogh is holding down one of the very few permanent full-time jobs in his life for the Dutch firm Goupil & Cie. At this juncture in his life he is not an artist by profession but indicates he has enjoyed drawing and sketching as a child.
We meet him in a buoyant, slightly nervous yet unpredictable mood as Van Gogh (Jake Turner) attempts to secure a room and board from a widow called Ursula Loyer. It is soon apparent that Vincent Van Gogh is prone to flights of romantic fantasy and sudden degrees of impolite bluntness in his critical nature, despite his surface likability. Once ensconced in the Loyer household in the quiet backstreets of Brixton (can you imagine?) Van Gogh enjoys a relatively happy time and becomes friends with a local handyman called Sam (Benjamin Dixon). All continues to go well with Van Gogh having a brief romantic fling with Mrs Loyer’s daughter Eugenie (Laura Sherratt). When he is rejected by Eugenie he turns his naive lusts onto Mrs Loyer herself. Partially rejected again for his clumsy and inappropriate behaviour, Van Gogh becomes depressed and eventually loses his position with the art firm. He turns to the Protestant religion for emotional and spiritual succour but his faith becomes another blind obsession often alienating those who surround him. This complex and disturbed young man turns to drink and Wright’s episodic play sees his fluctuating relationships faltering and a roof over his head threatened. In the second act Van Gogh’s massively disruptive busybody sister Anna (Alex Milligan) comes to stay at the Loyer household and causes havoc. Mr Vincent, thus called because English people struggled to pronounce his surname correctly, begins his steady decline whilst also discovering a fresh passion for drawing.
The Lace Market Theatre upstairs studio space is used to give an impression of Mrs Ursula Loyer’s kitchen and dining area with a rough white scrubbed wooden dining table taking centre stage. Some effort has been made to show the audience appropriate kitchenware props of the period although the three metal tables against the plain back wall spoil the illusion a little. Nonetheless, director Guy Evans brings the piece compellingly to life with good use of the limited space and well-placed lighting captures the various visual timbres and human moods.
The five actors give Vincent In Brixton some excellent, very believable, performances bordering on professional in their subtlety and slow building of their character’s journeys. Turner is compelling and likable as Van Gogh even down to his authentic ginger beard. His more grown up and down-at-heel version of Van Gogh in the second act is strikingly good.; Choubey’s Ursula broods magnificently in her widowed state and crackles in her emotional outbursts; Dixon offers up a highly plausible and slightly dangerous manual workman/would-be artist, Sam; Milligan gives Anna a brightness of energy and humour that contrasts nicely with the other more measured performances and Sherratt beguiles with her down-to- earth daughter, Eugenie. Nicholas Wright’s dramatic text gives us some cleverly inserted hints at things that will go on to influence Vincent Van Gogh’s tortured artistic genius life; the potato eaters; a starry night and the haunting history of the infant death of Vincent Van Gogh’s little brother christened with the same name, amongst others.
Vincent In Brixton ends with a positioning of the characters like a still-life on stage – something frozen in time, like a painting of a time long ago. Van Gogh’s boots are on the table – now out of the soil and locked into eternity – the ordinary and plain made somehow extra-ordinary through art. Van Gogh’s real life continued after he was forced by circumstances to leave England and he chose to live an abject and pious life amongst the desperately poor peasants in Brabant in Southern Belgium. This extreme life experience is where he starts, in earnest, to create his true art works, firstly in stark black and white images leading some years later, in the South of France, to splendidly colourful depictions of domestic interiors and portraits of ordinary people. Then he finishes with blazes of sunflowers and the forever haunting images of dark birds over sunburnt cornfields and the sound of a gun ending his life in suicide at the tender age of 37.
Vincent In Brixton is the first of the Lace Market Theatre’s productions starting this Autumn and Winter season. The run is mostly sold out but if you do get the chance try and see it. You won’t regret witnessing a version of Van Gogh’s early life on stage by this fine amateur company.
This short play starts at 7.30pm and ends at 9.20pm