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Review Round-up: Thumbs Up for New Arcola

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Dalston's Arcola Theatre has unveiled its new venue, a converted paint factory on Ashwin Street, with the world premiere of Rebecca Lenkiewicz's The Painter, centring on the life of English landscape painter and watercolourist JMW Turner.

Directed by Arcola artistic director Mehmet Ergen, the production, which opened on Friday (14 January) and continues until 12 February, stars Toby Jones as Turner with Niamh Cusack as mistress and mother of his two children, Sarah Danby. The cast also features Amanda Boxer, Jim Bywater, Denise Gough and Ian Midlane.

Overnight critics, some of whom had a rocky relationship with the Arcola’s previous home, were generous in their appreciation of the new space, even if their response to the play was mixed.

Michael Coveney

"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 … 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.”

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

“The auditorium is a fine one, with a semi-derelict, post-industrial feel and a much higher ceiling than the claustrophobic former premises … The first thing to be said is that Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s play is a lot better than Timberlake Wertenbaker’s punishingly dull piece about Degas, The Line, which the Arcola premiered in 2009. Nevertheless, it still put me in mind of Philip Larkin’s dictum that art about art isn’t really art at all, and much of the first half drifts aimlessly with far too little in the way of gripping drama … The production only really catches fire in the harrowing scene in which the painter’s mentally distressed mother tells her son – just before she is carted off to the madhouse – that she wished he had died in infancy rather than his younger sister … Jones, short of stature like Turner, and with a perpetually baffled face, memorably captures the painter’s gauche uneasiness in everyday life and his soaring visions of art … Unlike Turner’s paintings however, Lenkiewicz’s play largely fails to blaze with light and illumination.”

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

“The play opens in 1799 and covers a period during which Turner’s reputation burgeons, though his personal life remains wretchedly stunted. It focuses on his relationships with three women — his mentally unstable mother, an attractive widow (Niamh Cusack, credible even if her bond with Turner is not) and a fiery young prostitute (a compelling Denise Gough) who works as his model but is later spurned … Lenkiewicz portrays Turner as a man whose commitment to art prevents healthy, satisfying emotional connections. His drive and obsession are nicely conveyed by Toby Jones, in a performance that combines poise and poignancy with mulish obstinacy and a palpable coarseness … It’s a problem, though, that the play never affords us much of a feel for Turner’s artistic brilliance and originality … The result, while authentic in its rendering of the ordinary textures of a great artist’s existence, doesn’t capture the essence of his work and his vision.”

Michael Billington

"In 23 short scenes, Lenkiewicz shows us the young Turner in the years from 1799 on when he was starting to build a formidable reputation; the portrait that emerges is of the painter as obsessive, arrogant and uneasy in his relationships with women … Behind the play lies a strong note of accusation: Mary tells Turner, ‘Your heart's a hole, Billy,’ and the heavily pregnant Sarah says, ‘You're always somewhere else.’ But it's a charge that could be levelled against most creative geniuses. And, although Lenkiewicz gives us extracts from Turner's Royal Academy lectures in which he articulated his aesthetic, she does little to explain what made him a great painter … In the end, the piece falls into the same trap as most plays about famous artists: it gives us glimpses of the disordered life but no analysis of the work it produced … Everything, including Ben Stones' set strewn with sketches and canvases, looks right and the space is seductive. I just wish Lenkiewicz had told us as much about Turner's art as she does about his heart.”

Paul Taylor

"The Arcola has moved half a mile down the road in Dalston to wonderfully atmospheric new premises … it's a brilliantly adaptable space that feels both monumental and intimate, and it provides the perfect conditions for the premiere of Rebecca Lenkiewicz's new play about Turner … Looking like a trampled-on cherub, Toby Jones gives a quiet, arrestingly sensitive performance as Turner … Jones hauntingly transmits a sense of the emotional wariness and inertia that see Turner drift in and out of friendship with Jenny, the prostitute who becomes his model for intimate anatomical drawings (a lovely, abrasively witty Denise Gough) and remain essentially unreachable even when his increasingly jealous, widowed lover Sarah (excellent Niamh Cusack) is expecting their child. But the piece has little to say about how any of this informed the way Turner saw the world or the way he painted.”

Ian Shuttleworth
Financial Times

"The Arcola Theatre’s new premises at Dalston Junction are still what an estate agent would call ‘a fixer-upper, with tremendous potential’. The front-of-house area is cramped compared with its original home, but the main space itself has a height that was lacking in that converted clothing factory; it also retains all its former flexibility, together with the capacity to rake an audience much more effectively in terms of sightlines … Lenkiewicz’s portrait of Turner, and Toby Jones’ central performance in Mehmet Ergen’s production, are faithful to this detachment even at the expense of drama … If the play were a visual artwork, it would be an ink drawing, quite detailed and representational and thus most unlike the shimmering play of colour and light in Turner’s own oil paintings, as suggested by designer Ben Stones on the back wall of the stage.”


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