The Painter

On 12 January The Arcola opened the doors of its new home, the Colourworks building, to the public. In its heyday the factory supplied colour blocks to artists throughout England. So what better way of marking the theatre’s move here than premiering a play about one of its most famous customers, JMW Turner?

At one point in Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s play Turner crossly dismisses an observation made by Jenny the prostitute that trees don’t move with, “Course they do. They’re always moving.” A little later in the same scene he describes what attracts him to painting water: “It’s the light. And what’s underneath. Terrifying.” Trees and water – look closer; there’s a lot more going on than first meets the eye.

The same is true of Toby Jones as the cockney artist trying to establish himself in the snooty circles of the Royal Academy while struggling in his relationships with three women: Mary, his mentally-ill mother (Amanda Boxer); Sarah, the actress-widow next door (Niamh Cusack); and Jenny (Denise Gough), who becomes Turner’s life model then introduces him to her four-year-old son. Jones’s face at the start of the play is like a mask; fixed and inscrutable. Never directly answering questions, particularly personal ones, he is as remote to the audience as he is to the other characters on stage.

However, as the play progresses, Jones gradually reveals the light and shade of Turner’s character. From his stiff- legged awkwardness around Sarah and Jenny to the creasing of his capacious brow as he struggles for the words that just will not come, he produces a multi-layered portrait of a talented man-child at odds with himself and the society outside his studio.

In real life, Turner, the son of a barber, secured himself a place at the Royal Academy when aged only 14. Later he achieved sufficient financial success to enable him to buy the house which so impresses Jenny in the play. With single-minded determination he overcame his origins to become one of the most important men of the early nineteenth century art world. In The Painter, however, he is a strangely reactive protagonist: events happen to him but not because of him.

For much of the production this approach is highly affecting; after all, the image of the socially maladjusted artist is an evocative one. However, the character’s passivity means that the play runs into difficulties whenever it attempts to address Turner’s rise to fame. How could a man whose only significant action here, rejecting Jenny and her son, is instigated by Sarah have had the strength to climb up the social ladder? This is a question that the script is unable to answer satisfactorily. There is some talk about his infatuation with “the fashionables” but it is never properly explored. Instead you are left with the feeling that the sharper edges of the man have been blunted.

Mehmet Ergen’s direction is solid. He makes good use of the new theatre’s greater stage space to convey the telescoped world of Turner’s studio. Characters roam ceaselessly from canvass to table to bench; working, eating, sleeping or just trying to keep warm as they struggle to make sense of themselves and each other amid the ordered chaos of booze, paints and piles of paper. Jenny and Sarah search as fruitlessly for lost drawings as they do for a way into Turner’s life.

Less successful is Ergen’s use of music as an emotional signpost. Every time something sufficiently dramatic occurs on stage a string section surges into life in appropriately sad, ominous or tragic fashion. Such browbeating is unnecessary. At a relatively late stage in the play Turner casually mentions to a visitor that the ever-faithful and efficient William (Jim Bywater), always in the background tidying the studio or carrying the artist’s sketches, is actually his father and not his servant. This revelation casts the men’s relationship in a new light and is all the more powerful for being understated and un-scored.

Ultimately, The Painter is an enjoyable and thoughtful play. The script is witty and refreshingly free of the stuffy language and historical fact-dropping that is sometimes bundled up with period dramas. It is also full-blooded and passionate: Lenkiewicz has a Stoppard-like ability to make an audience understand and, more importantly, feel Turner’s excitement towards art as both a discipline and an experience. To this end, the production is blessed with actors who can make the most of her words. Of the supporting cast Boxer particularly impresses with her hollow-eyed and rage-filled performance as Mary Turner, terrified of Bedlam looming in the distance.

And at the heart of the play is Jones’s nuanced portrait of Turner the artist: a man for whom painting represents an escape, an opportunity to turn the chaos of life into something beautiful and permanent.

(At the Arcola Theatre, 12 January-12 February 2011)

Reviewed for musicOMH