Royal National Theatre (Cottesloe), London SE1
Opened 1 May, 2002

***** Not about what makes arts or artists, but what makes people

Richard Eyre's production of Nicholas Wright's play about van Gogh's early years in London is, in its deliberately low-key way, sensational.

What the piece shows us is not a Great Artist striving to bring forth Great Art, but an intense young man struggling to find the way he should live, whether within the constraints of his Dutch Calvinist background or the soaring vistas his soul seems instinctively to yearn for. He is influenced by his arrival in what, for Victorian England, is an unusually liberated household; falling at first sight for the daughter of the house, he gradually comes to realise that he has a deeper affinity with her widowed mother. Almost by the way, Wright also works in examinations of class and other social issues surrounding art.

Played in traverse on Tim Hatley's fully practical kitchen set (almost every scene involves actual cooking on the range), this is a quiet piece but a magnificent one. As Vincent, Jochum ten Haaf combines a naive, laconic bluntness with an evident intensity beneath the surface. As his landlady Ursula, Clare Higgins gives one of the finest performances I have seen in an age, portraying depression with absolute, precise insight and combining it with a simultaneous passion. The final aftermath scene is heartbreaking in its grinding anticlimax. Terrific stuff.

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Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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