The Painter, Arcola Theatre, London
Tuesday 18 January 2011
The Arcola has moved half a mile down the road in Dalston to wonderfully atmospheric new premises – a converted old paint factory once owned by Reeves, the company that manufactured the colour blocks made famous by artists such as Turner and Constable. With its lofty ceiling and brick walls, it's a brilliantly adaptable space that feels both monumental and intimate, and it provides the perfect conditions for the premiere of Rebecca Lenkiewicz's new play about Turner, which is largely set in the great artist's cluttered studio.
Looking like a trampled-on cherub, Toby Jones gives a quiet, arrestingly sensitive performance as Turner, the pint-sized cockney rebel who boasts that he could paint with his tongue better than the fashionable daubers of the day. Periodically, we hear him lecture to his Royal Academy students whom he urges to "Forget about dogs. Face-painting. Flowers" and to seek instead for "The sublime. A dark event. In another of these addresses, his advice to budding painters is to "Keep your corners quiet. Centre your interest." Ironically, Turner's precept is disregarded by Lenkiewicz's play which – as it unfolds over 20-odd short scenes in Mehmet Ergen's beautifully modulated production – has a curious evenness of emphasis.
Toby Jones hauntingly transmits a sense of the emotional wariness and inertia that see Turner drift in and out of friendship with Jenny, the prostitute who becomes his model for intimate anatomical drawings (a lovely, abrasively witty Denise Gough) and remain essentially unreachable even when his increasingly jealous, widowed lover Sarah (excellent Niamh Cusack) is expecting their child.
But the piece has little to say about how any of this informed the way Turner saw the world or the way he painted.
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