Nicholas Wright’s excellent new play is
about the twenty-year-old Vincent Van Gogh when he came from Holland
to work for the art dealers Goupil and Co.
Like his earlier drama, “Cressida,” Nicholas Wright’s latest work
is based on fact, which he imaginatively enlarges upon He
has a gift for complex characterization and sharp dialogue, as
well as a sure dramatic sense that combines humor and seriousness.
Arriving in Brixton in 1873, young Vincent, whose two years there
we know something about from his letters home, lodged with a widow,
Ursula Loyer, a schoolteacher, and her daughter Eugenie.
All this is fact. Engagingly acted by Jochum Ten Haaf, who
not only is Dutch, but also looks much like the artist as a young
man, Vincent is both naïve and outspoken, shy and ready for love
– with any woman. Falling madly in love at first sight with
Eugenie, but sworn to secrecy by free-thinker Ursula because Eugenie
is already having an affair with lodger Sam (Paul Nicholls), Vincent
becomes aware that he and Ursula are soul mates: “You’re like
a mirror of my despair,” he tells her.
Actually, the widow is the most deeply drawn character in the
work, and Wright provides a many-faceted Ursula for Clare Higgins
to ably explore.
Here is a lonely woman, depressed and wearing mourning for 15
years, yet ably running her school and her household, yearning
for beauty and hoping to inspire in another the talent she can
appreciate while lacking it herself. Expertly directed by
Richard Eyre, the action is set in the kitchen of Ursula’s house,
with a centuries-old table in the center and an old-fashioned
stove where real potatoes are boiled and tea is brewed.
In Jochum Ten Haaf’s sensitive portrayal, one can feel in the
young Vincent the anger as well as the despair that was to hound
him, even as he responds to the beauty of nature and to the plight
of the poor, as mentioned in his letters. His sketches done on
a short visit home duplicate his actual ones, and as he peels
the potatoes for Ursula, one recalls his painting of the Potato
Eaters, while Ursula’s description of the stars evokes Starry
Night. The arrival of Vincent’s abrasive younger sister Anna (Emma
Handy) provides humor and exasperation for the household, and
also sets up Vincent’s abrupt departure, ordered by his father
and uncle to the Paris branch of Goupil and Co. Returning to London
three years later, Vincent finds Ursula much changed and again
in despair. He has given up art for religion, and is teaching
at a religious school. But in Wright’s final twist (let
it come as a surprise), we see Vincent back on the path he was
to follow so gloriously – and tragically – and hope for Ursula