Vincent in Brixton, Cottesloe Theatre, London

Alternative portrait of an artist as a young man
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

England is a country where an astonishing array of international luminaries (from Nijinsky to Simone Weil) have wound up dying. Fewer famous foreigners have cut their teeth here. An exception is Vincent Van Gogh who, in 1873 at the age of 20, was sent from Holland to the London branch of a firm of art dealers.

At that stage, though, there were few signs that this unprecocious figure would become a genius. It was six years before he announced his decision to live for, and by, painting. And in between, he made a fervent and failed bid to become a preacher. Premiered now in Richard Eyre's intimate and beautifully acted production, Nicholas Wright's subtle, insightful new play focuses on the Vincent who, newly arrived in this country, had yet to find his true vocation.

It's on record that Vincent lodged in Brixton with a schoolteaching widow, Ursula Loyer, and that he developed a crushing unrequited passion for her daughter, Eugene. Supplementing and readjusting this bald scenario with imaginative speculation, the play offers an intriguing alternative Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Jochum Ten Haaf is superbly funny and moving as the naïve, outspoken and rather absurd newcomer who, in this version, finds himself in a tragi-comic predicament. Sworn to silence over his physical infatuation with the daughter, he discovers a strong mental affinity with the mother who has held him to this pledge. Played in a performance of remarkable empathy by Claire Higgins, Ursula is a deep depressive whose condition allows her flashes of visionary intensity. In her, Vincent finds a mirror and eventually a lover. When she talks of her moments of charged insight into, say, the profoundly contrasting blackness and light of a starry sky, she could be describing future paintings by the artist.

One of the virtues of the play is that it doesn't pretend that inspiration works in a straight line. For example, Ursula's gift to Vincent initially leads him into eschewing art and wanting to emulate the ministry of Christ. It's only at the very end that we see a way in which these two urges in him might creatively coalesce.

In movies, Van Gogh has featured as the clichéd epitome of the tortured genius. Avoiding all such melodrama, Vincent in Brixton shows us that genius in gestation.