The Arcola christens its new home, in a converted paint factory on Ashwin Street, with Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play about the life of JMW Turner. In choosing Turner as her subject, Lenkiewicz has to grapple with a familiar dilemma. How does one go about showing creative genius on stage? Take away the work and what remains?
Toby Jones (Turner) in The Painter at the Arcola Theatre Photo: Tristram Kenton
Lenkiewicz mingles snippets of Turner’s home life with speeches drawn from his lectures to the Royal Academy. The play is episodic in structure - a collection of short scenes, nicely handled individually, but lacking in bite.
As Turner, Toby Jones gives a strong, subtle performance, which is essentially reactive. Turner is portrayed as a man who gives little away and though utterly assured of his own abilities, he is less confident in his relations with women. He seems genuinely fond of the prostitute who becomes the model for a series of anatomical studies, but he terminates this at the behest of the widowed neighbour with whom he is having a child
Denise Gough is superb as the brittle young prostitute. Her love for her young son is palpable and she gives a sense that she grasps Turner’s emotional limitations far better than the other women in his life - Amanda Boxer as his distressed and volatile mother and Niamh Cusack as the clinging widow.