The Arcola has moved half a mile down the road to a semi-derelict old paint factory in Ashwin Street opposite Dalston Junction station: it’s an instantly attractive, adaptable and atmospheric venue, with a high ceiling, brick walls, rough floorboards, a perfect setting to serve in the first instance as JMW “Billy” Turner’s 19th century workplace.
Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s enthralling new play is a deliberately calm and underwritten daub portraying the artist in search of the sublime while floundering helplessly in the mundane business of his private life. Mehmet Ergen’s production, beautifully lit by Emma Chapman, unravels quietly in an authentic place of work.
Toby Jones as Turner - small, squashed, untidy, self-absorbed - is a similar sort of creation to Edward Bond’s distracted Shakespeare in Bingo, seemingly frozen in inaction as his poor mad mother (fraught, despairing Amanda Boxer) is committed to an asylum, his prostitute friend, Jenny Cole (riveting Denise Gough), is allowed to drift apart and his widowed lover, Sarah Danby (luminous, devoted Niamh Cusack), battles to win his commitment.
Jenny is a fictional character and Sarah more prominent here than in real life (her niece, Hannah, became Turner’s housekeeper). The play begins in 1799 as the painter moves into his new studio with his dad (Jim Bywater really could be Toby’s dad if you didn’t know that the brilliant, extraordinary Freddie Jones actually was), varnishing a canvas, acting generally as pot man, domestic help and workmate.
The opening and closing are marked with the doomy ostinato bass line of “Dido’s Lament” by Purcell; Turner’s painting of “Dido building Carthage” was one of his favourites and he refused to sell it. This and other anecdotes from his life are judiciously placed in a subtle narrative that sees him coming close to Jenny (and her unseen son) while using her as a model for the intimate anatomical drawings Ruskin destroyed after his death.
Ben Stones’ design simply exploits the properties of a building one is eager to re-visit as soon as possible. The audience sits on three sides, and there’s a single-row gallery above. And Jones’ teasing, sympathetic performance is every bit as fascinating as Jochum ten Haaf’s Van Gogh in Nicholas Wright’s Vincent in Brixton, or Alfred Molina’s Mark Rothko in John Logan’s Red; like those plays, this one avoids clichés and also manages to say something urgent about the artistic spirit and the cost of it to those who fan the flames.