THOUGHT-PROVOKING BUT BORDERS ON PONDEROUS
MRS VAN GOGH
By Geoff Allen
presented by Galatea Theatre
at Musgrove Studio, Maidment Theatre, Auckland
From 18 Apr 2012 to 28 Apr 2012
Reviewed by Nik Smythe, 19 Apr 2012
This fairly ambitious, evidently inspired latest work from Galatea Theatre is essentially a companion piece to writer/director Geoff Allen's earlier play Vincent and Theo (1994), which explored the codependent relationship between the famous painter and his art-dealer brother.
Eighteen years on Allen has seen fit to redress the travesty of the unsung stalwart Johanna Van Gogh, wife of Theo, whose progressive spirit in the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds was probably the most significant factor in Vincent's posthumous eternal fame and adoration.
In the title role, elfin Gina Timberlake is astute and forthright, very much a modern woman of her time, though often stalled in wistful contemplation. Brendan Lovell's Theo is dignified, compassionate, well-mannered and long suffering from the stresses of trading in art in a changing, uncertain epoch in which even paintings by his eventually celebrated brother struggle vainly for recognition.
The careworn features and natural intensity of John Goudge as Vincent serve well to create a credible portrait, no pun intended, of the Dutch master.
Visually the production design is well appointed under the guidance of design consultant Sophie Kaiser: a centre upstage easel framed by a large mottled canvas on the rear wall; period furniture includes a plush cloth covered table, set about with wooden chairs, and a tall back dresser housing various utilised props; to the left what at first appears to be a large, propped-up canvas turns out to be an abstract bed.
Strewn all about are mostly recognisable Van Gogh classics, as rendered quite passably by Geoff Allen himself. To add to this comprehensive creative package, Goudge's evocative original musical score, composed using Vincent's works for inspiration, is woven throughout the action.
The costumes – which may make-or-break any period piece – by Cathie Sandy are tremendously distinctive. Vincent's iconic baggy pants, vest and trenchcoat complement Goudge's drawn facial features and auburn hair and beard to create a fairly redolent likeness. The black, white and grey of Theo's suit matches his square, upstanding character, while the collection of Johanna's patterned and tailored frocks and gowns of are something of a fashion show in themselves.
It seems Van Gogh was so terrified of being abandoned by his brother that many of those crazy actions he's famous for – cutting his earlobe off, eating his paint etc. – were in response to key episodes in Theo and Johanna's burgeoning relationship, their wedding and the birth of their only son, even though they named him Vincent. The irrationality of his resentment is heightened by Johanna's stalwart dedication to Theo's ambitions and, by extension, Vincent's, though he does come to begrudgingly recognise this reality.
Ostensibly the real intention of this play is to examine the thoughts and motives of Mrs Van Gogh, nee Bonger, which seem essentially to be based around principles of love and decency, and the rights of all people – even women! – to a fair deal.
Although this is all very remarkable and thought-provoking in itself, in a dramatic sense the very measured, bordering on ponderous, direction lacks distinction and leaves me a trifle cold. It's an effort to invest emotionally in performances pitched at such a cerebral level.
Some technical points are distracting, like the unconvincing sound effect of a crying baby. Also, Mrs. Van Gogh introducing herself at first with a supposedly Dutch accent, then dispensing with it during flashback scenes with Theo and Vincent, who don't use accents; and they also speak Dutch a few times. At first this appears to be a means of distinguishing the 1913 ‘present' to her remembered past but even then the accent is inconsistent throughout her narrations.
Allen's script hints at something quite affecting that has driven him to tell this tale, but the clarity of this passion is not translated very clearly into the theatrical format. It could be that as director he is hindered by over-familiarity with his text and the history behind it, so that for laypersons (like me) it's quite hard work to connect it all up. Those familiar with Van Gogh's personal story, if not that of his brother and sister-in-law, will undoubtedly have an advantage.
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See also reviews by:
Rosabel Tan (Theatre Scenes - Auckland Theatre Blog);
Paul Simei-Barton (New Zealand Herald);
Phillip J Dexter