Vincent in Brixton by Nicholas Wright. Directed by Richard Eyre. Sets and Costumes by Tim Hatley. Lighting by Peter Mumford. Original Music by Dominic Muldowney. Sound by Neil Alexander. Projections by Wendall K. Harrington. Cast: Sarah Drew, Jochum ten Haaf, Clare Higgins, Liesel Matthews, Pete Starrett.
The nature of an artist's inspiration is not something that can necessarily be easily explained, even by the artist. So, Nicholas Wright's new play, Vincent in Brixton, which transferred from London to the Golden Theatre where it has just opened, faces a difficult task: What's the best way to get to the heart of a particular artist, especially one as widely known as Vincent Van Gogh?
Wright's solution was to embrace that heart openly, fashioning a somewhat unusual love story from what little is known of Van Gogh's life from 1873 to 1876. He's extrapolated from known information, drawing upon the significant amount of Van Gogh's correspondence which has survived, and done a fair amount of his own research, but in making Van Gogh a romantic figure in this way, complete historical veracity has been set aside, as it sometimes must for the greater theatrical and artistic good.
But it's that choice - along with two wonderful central performances - that allows Vincent in Brixton to fulfill its promise as a tribute to Van Gogh's artistic vision and as a good play. Or at least half a great play; of the four scenes in Vincent in Brixton, two are adequate and two are explosive. All are, in a way, necessary, but, though there are plenty of laughs and a good deal of personal insight to be found throughout, it's the two scenes straddling the intermission that provide Vincent in Brixton with its greatest dramatic weight and romantic power.
At the end of the first act, Van Gogh (Jochum ten Haaf) and his landlady Ursula Loyer (Clare Higgins) finally come together and admit their own fears, trepidations, and yearnings. Under the sure hand of director Richard Eyre, the resulting scene is one of the most passionate and arresting to hit Broadway in quite a while. Ursula is a widow of nearly fifteen years who has never been able to complete her period of mourning, while Vincent is youthful and energetic, romantically inexperienced, yet inexplicably drawn to this woman many years his senior. Each is exactly what the other needs, and the chemical reaction resulting from their union is highly potent.
Though Wright's scene smolders, built upon multiple layers of subtlety he had been covertly placing during the first scene, it's ten Haaf and Higgins that really make the heart pound. Higgins handles Ursula's transformation brilliantly, her thin veneer of icy detachment melting before your eyes under ten Haaf's expectant adoration. It's exactly right and perfectly set up dramatically, yet still a delightful surprise in the way so many good moments in the theatre are.
The next scene, taking place a while after the previous, shows the results of the transformation. How Ursula relates to her daughter Eugenie (Sarah Drew), how Vincent relates to his sister Anna (Liesel Matthews), and the effect their secret affair has on Eugenie's relationship with another boarder, Sam (Pete Starrett) are vital, yes, but Higgins - by simply appearing onstage in a costume unlike any she's worn previously - speaks volumes without needing to utter a word.
This suggests the primary problem with Vincent in Brixton: ten Haaf and Higgins are so strong, nothing else in the play can quite compare. The other actors' performances are all intelligently crafted and interesting, perfectly adequate but not exceptional. Likewise, the other actors' major scenes - dealing with the subplot focusing on Eugenie and Sam's secret relationship or Sam's intent to go to art school - work, but don't reach the same level. During these times, Vincent in Brixton lulls a bit too much.
Hence the main structural problem in Wright's writing, the first and last scenes in the play not possessing the dramatic vitality needed to make Vincent in Brixton completely fulfilling. Looked at as a dramatic piece detailing the spark of Van Gogh's inspiration - his early career in art dealership, his overwhelming commitment to his faith, and finally his desire to create art himself are all dealt with explicitly - every scene is important. But the first scene is overloaded with exposition, setting up a great deal for future scenes, but offering little on its own terms. The final scene offers a decent cap to the show, but proves considerably jarring and a bit too dramatically convenient.
For a play with as strong a core as Vincent in Brixton has, this is unfortunate; the play takes too long to get where it's going, and backs off too quickly once it arrives. But while it's there, much about Vincent in Brixton is remarkable. Tim Hatley's intimate, yet dark, kitchen set seems a realm of creative possibilities (Wendall K. Harrington's projections also set the scene in south London with great flair), while his costumes are always attractive, and in one case stunning, relying on simplicity for a dazzling theatrical effect. Peter Mumford's lights almost have a life of their own, and, in the central scenes, almost allow you to see through to Ursula's soul.
But even if they didn't, Higgins would provide all the illumination needed; hers is truly a glittering, exhilarating performance. It's well complemented by ten Haaf's intelligent, humorous work, and with Wright's dialogue backing them up, the two performers provide ample heart and soul to fill to capacity not just Vincent in Brixton, but the rest of the Broadway season as well.