2 hrs. Rebecca Lenkiewicz play about the artist Turner, starring Toby Jones, the inaugural production at the Arcola's new base hard by the splendid new Dalston Junction station. An iffy evening, with top-notch performances marred by a play and a performance space that were both problematic.
The space is impressive, even cavernous, without losing intimacy. We sat on scaffolding seating round three sides in what we're told is an old paint factory dating from 1766 where Turner might well have bought his colours, with a Donmar-style brick wall at the back of the playing area. But it was freezing. We sat in coats and scarves and woolly mittens: the actors must have been numb with cold. Worse, unlike the old Arcola (which was up a quiet side-street and where the main apparently windowless performance space was buried at the back, with extensive front of house helping to muffle extraneous sounds) this new one is on a corner with nothing between the auditorium and the outside world but a brick wall, wooden doorways and boarded-up windows. The street noise was near-constant, intrusive and distracting. Although this is a side street the building across the road between the theatre and Dalston High Road has been demolished so the Saturday evening sirens were clearly audible; next door to the theatre is a busy bar (we're in cultural quartier regeneration territory here) whose patrons spilled onto the pavement and laughed and talked noisily, especially during one of the climactic scenes. They badly need to do something about sound insulation, though it's not clear what what they can do. They also need a bigger foyer: at present the entrance is little more than a long dogleg corridor with a bar, and when we arrived most of the space was filled by the queue for the unreserved seating.
The play was unsatisfactory too: a series of short impressionistic sketches (appropriate, I suppose, for an artist) which only developed slowly into a narrative, directed by the Arcola's founder Mehmet Ergen. The action spanned a year or three in the middle of Turner's life, when he is successful, newly-elected to a fellowship at the Royal Academy, planning to open a new gallery to show his works in Harley Street, but hopeless with women. The widow next door seduces him but cannot break through his self-absorption. He has a more satisfactory relationship (though not sexual) with a prostitute whose private parts he draws and whose young son he befriends. His mad mother is committed to Bedlam (she never loved him, it seems: when his eight-year old sister was dying, she tells him, she prayed God to take the 11-year old Turner instead). His stoical manservant (who turns out to be his father) is a mild-mannered paragon of good sense and calm. He lectures to the Academy. He has a prickly relationship with buyers. The one thing he doesn't do (at least not where we can see him) is any painting.
There were some good lines. Turner is hurt by a review which says, patronisingly, that he feels the need always to be extraordinary. What's the point of painting, he asks rhetorically, if it's not extraordinary? There were some exchanges towards the end with the widow and the prostitute and his father which might have been moving if it hadn't been for the distracting noise from outside and (unforgiveably) the brief but piercing ring of the building's landline phone which someone had obviously forgotten to switch off or to silent. I suspect it helped if you came to the play with some prior knowledge: A complained that she knew nothing about him and was completely at sea.
But the performances were flawless, especially Toby Jones as Turner and Jim Bywater as his dad. Niamh Cusack was the widow and Denise Gough was the prostitute (with what I was going to claim was a dodgy Irish accent until I discovered she is Irish). The other positive was the design and (especially) the lighting by Emma Chapman. Some of the wonderfully painterly lighting effects could have been by Wright of Derby or Benjamin Haydon; she achieved an instantaneous transition from Turner's studio to lecture theatre with strong yellow light from directly above or just behind him. The studio was beautifully set: a writing table downstage right cluttered with pens and paper; a bench along the back wall with a sink and sheaves of paper and albums; an easel in front of it; a handful of chairs. As convincing a picture of an artist's workplace as in the Donmar's Red (which is high praise).