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Friday 18 January 2019

One man van Gogh play shines on starry, starry night

Gráinne Donoghue, Blaithnaid Fitzsimons, Christine Scarry, Red Alchemy Theatre Company and Aoife Fitzsimons at the recent production of ‘Vincent’ at Horetown House
Gráinne Donoghue, Blaithnaid Fitzsimons, Christine Scarry, Red Alchemy Theatre Company and Aoife Fitzsimons at the recent production of ‘Vincent’ at Horetown House

Review - David Looby

The breathtaking, tortured genius of Vincent van Gogh was brought to life in a virtuoso performance by Wexford actor Peter McCamley in the Irish debut of 'Vincent a play' in the historic Horetown House.

Written by none other than Leonard Nimoy (Mr Spock), the one man play was truly out of this world.

Taking place in a marquee attached to one of the county's grandest country houses - where weddings take place every weekend - this tale of heartbreak, poverty and madness seemed incongruous with the sumptuous surrounds of the grand house hotel and popular wedding venue.

Directed by Christine Scarry, Vincent is set in Paris in 1890. We meet Theo van Gogh who is mourning the suicide of his beloved brother, Vincent, who died in his arms at the age of 37.

The action shifts between Theo, at his desk, always concerned for his brother to whom he is a philanthropist, confidant and more, and Vincent, living in squalor.

McCamley imbues his Vincent with a frenetic nervous energy, words flowing in torrents from a fevered mind bursting with creativity. An intense delivery reveals the contents of the many letters they shared, allowing us to feel the loss, anger, frustration and (sometimes) joy of their volatile relationship, re-telling the events in Vincent's own words.

Against the visual backdrop of Van Gogh paintings, lingering within a large gold frame for seconds before being replaced by another stunning work, the first image is a portrait of the man himself, that striking face. Those worried, watchful eyes. In a bid to explain his brother's unique personality Theo confides at the beginning that Vincent poured more love and passion into his life than ten men combined. The epistolary technique works well, providing insightful snapshots into van Gogh as he spirals out into madness.

His letters are written at a simple artist's work bench, with a bottle of alcohol always within reach and an easel nearby, the evangelical zeal the artist inherited no doubt from his pastor father is evident from our first glimpses of him. Troubled by the question: 'How can I have some use in this world?', we see a man struggling to control his passion for life.

McCamley channels this powerful nervous energy: swinging, shouting, pointing like a man possessed - conveying the paroxysms of rage, often drink fuelled, his character demands. At one point the artist's easel is thrown across the stage in frustration. The starving artist turns to a prostitute, whose family's needs Theo ends up funding.

When van Gogh moves to Arles, we get glimpses of his toxic relationship with the painter Paul Gauguin, whom he idolised. The act for which Van Gogh is most remembered, the severing of his ear, is conveyed sensitively, bringing the first act to a close; mesmeric, haunting music the fitting backdrop.

The power of Van Gogh's strange imagination and breadth of talent increases, somehow, as he descends further into madness. Always fearful of having his work critiqued and sold even, his brother Theo, who is an art dealer, manages to sell one of his works but there is no relief for the artist who spends all his waking hours in pursuit of perfection, completing over 200 paintings in his final two years. Treated like a freak, a 'creature' in Arles, we see Theo's concern for his brother grow, as he becomes his apologist, defender, quoting Van Gogh's letters with a look of deep concern on his face. Confined to an insane asylum, Van Gogh finally finds peace.

The final portrait we see is of a gaunt, almost alien face, save for the dreaming eyes, which like pinprick stars shine forth defiantly. We learn of his death having shot himself in the chest in 1890, while a psychiatric patient in a hospital near Paris.

Theo relays his late brother's favourite quote, and in doing so, encapsulates the man and the artist: 'To act well in this world, one must sacrifice all personal desires. The people who become missionaries of religious thought have no other Fatherland than this thought. Man is not on Earth merely to be happy, nor even simply to be honest. He is here to realize great things for humanity, to attain nobility, and to surmount the vulgarity of nearly every individual.'

The audience is treated to a slide-show of the artist's works, scores of them. 'Vincent a play' ultimately becomes a meditation on the meaning of art and artistry in a world that measures success by sales.

Outside, on a clear early winter's night in Foulksmills, the stars shone bright, bright as Van Gogh captured them over 130 years ago. In the play McCamley manages to show the humanity, ambition and brilliance of an artist whose works light up galleries and souls across the world to this day.

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