Colorless Van Gogh
By Robert Brustein
Vincent in Brixton
252 W. 45th St.
Box office: 212-239-6200
Vincent in Brixton is the creation of British theatre critics,
having been nominated for an Olivier award for Best Play. It is another
of those meditations on artists and scientists (Nils Bohr and Walter
Heisenberg, Albert Einstein and Salvador Dali, etc.) that are currently
engaging English playwrights. The author of Vincent, Nicholas
Wright, has already written at least one of these bioplays, Mrs.
Klein, about the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. Here, inspired by
some letters Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo during the time
that he spent in London (1873-76), Wright has imagined a love affair
between the twenty-year-old Dutchman--not
yet a painter and still possessed of both ears--and his fifty-year-old
widowed landlady, Ursula Loyer, who becomes his improbable Muse. The
playwright's inspiration for this imaginary relationship is a passage
in which Vincent, citing the Gospel passage that "No woman is old,"
interprets it to mean "a woman is not old as long as she loves
and is loved."
The story is competently, even sensitively told, and Claire Higgins
is giving a beautifully shaded performance as the dispirited Mrs. Loyer,
perpetually dressed in black until her libido is awakened, her face
a canvas of conflicting and suppressed emotions. Jochum Ten Haaf's physically
awkward, motor-mouthed Vincent doesn't move us quite as much, or display
much of the genius that was later to change the way we looked at the
world. If we didn't know this shy, fumbling, scrunched-up lover was
destined to become one of the century's greatest painters, Nicholas
Wright's May/September romance would seem about as significant as Harold
The play has been very sensitively directed, however, by Richard Eyre
with a talented cast. And it features a handsome period set by Tim Hatley,
complete with grainy period photos, sculpted wooden kitchen tables,
and a genuine antique stove where real food is cooked in real time.
The play ends with Mr. Loyer (again in black) sitting at the kitchen
table to pose for Vincent, looking somewhat like the Woman of Arles.
A lovely tableau with which to end a play without much color.
(Robert Brustein is Founding Director
of American Repertory Theatre and Theater Critic of The New Republic.)