The Painter

Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Arcola Theatre
(2011)

For its 10th birthday, the Arcola Theatre has received a new building from its kindly Uncle Hackney Council. While it might not yet be completed, the space is welcoming and conveniently located within two minutes' walk of a pair of London Overground stations, one heading north-south and the other east-west.

The Arcola likes its artists and their sex lives, having in the last year or so portrayed Edgar Degas and Suzanne Valadon in The Line by Timberlake Wertenbaker and Egon Schiele with Gustav Klimt in Snoo Wilson's Reclining Nude with Black Stockings.

Therefore it comes as little surprise to find that the inaugural play in the new Studio 1, which contains a compact thrust stage overlooked by a narrow gallery, sees Toby Jones depicting The Painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner, or Billy to his intimates.

Pleasingly, one of the characters addresses the first question that anyone who visits the Turner collection at Tate Britain will inevitably pose: "How come you paint the sea such a lot?" If you want to know the artist's answer, as penned by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, go and see the play.

Under Artistic Director Mehmet Ergen, we discover that the great British artist was almost irredeemably gloomy whether painting, dealing with the family or being seduced by pretty women.

To an extent, this is justified by the tough times in which he lived. Britain was at war with Napoleon, while life expectancy was short. Turner's sister didn't make it to youth, let alone adulthood, and that loss drove his Mother mad.

Amanda Boxer gives a beautiful, if painful, portrayal of a woman drifting in and out of sanity who fears incarceration in the dreaded Bedlam but sadly eventually ends up there.

His father, Jim Bywater as another William, for some reason takes on the role of Billy's assistant/lackey but is then able to offer support and tenderness when they are most needed.

Unlike his fellows at the Royal Academy, Turner hailed from working-class stock but that did not stop him either from showing a deep, almost obsessional, intellectual interest in art or lecturing on his favourite subject to those from far more august backgrounds.

However, the centre of this play rests not so much on his family or art as Turner's relationships with two troubled women.

On the one hand, there is Denise Gough's Jenny, a tart with a heart of gold and a lovable (as reported) four-year-old son. She provides comfort and beauty to an artist who desperately needs both.

His other admirer is the rather more cultured Sarah Danby, played by Niamh Cusack. She is a pregnant, widowed mother who already has three daughters and seeks something more solid than the very private Turner is willing to give. In time, they have a child of their own, although even then the artist seems no more inclined to commit himself to Sarah than Jenny.

The Painter shows us an artist in his prime but a man of startling immaturity. Life with Turner was never comfortable for his loved ones and visitors to the new Arcola in Ashwin Street may not warm to him either. That is probably a mark of the accuracy with which an awkward man of rare genius has been painted by all concerned and in particular Toby Jones, who gives a sensitive performance.

Philip Fisher