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Playing Vincent


An evening talk coinciding with The Real Van Gogh - The Artist and His Letters

Royal Academy of Arts

February 12, 2010







A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


The intriguing premise for this talk was, according to its advertising, meant to centre on the research and preparations involved in playing 20 year old Vincent Van Gogh during his London years (1873-75) touching on his return as preacher cum artist in 1876 in Nicholas Wright’s Olivier Award winning 2002 play, Vincent in Brixton. Though fictional, the play draws on Van Gogh’s years in Stockwell (Brixton in the play) living in the home of the Loyer family where he quickly fell in love with his landlady’s daughter Eugenie only to learn of her secret engagement to another man, after which he, according to Nicholas Wright, falls in love with Eugenie’s deeply mourning, widowed mother Ursula, played by gifted actress Clare Higgins, who won two Oliviers for her role, both in the play’s initial NT run and revival.  A three month gap in Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo during his London period, coupled with his admonition to his brother in a letter that ‘No woman is old as long as she loves and is loved’ (quoted from a novel Vincent was then reading) provided the impetus for Wright’s sensitive portrait of a young man who, during this phase of his all too brief life, began his arduous path towards the creation of his eventually legendary artworks. The play suggests that Ursula, who excelled at seeing the ‘quality’ in other people, may have been the artist’s muse.

Both Jochum ten Haaf, who played Vincent in the play’s original NT, and subsequent West End and Broadway runs of the play and Mark Edel-Hunt who assumed the role in the 2009 National touring production, were on hand, albeit sans the customarily objective interviewer. Instead, ten Haaf, who joked that he is now the ‘hot line’ to Vincent Van Gogh in Amsterdam where he lives, was effectively interviewed by his touring counterpart, Edel-Hunt, whose questions, understandably, drew more on ten Haaf’s experiences of playing the role, than on the research and preparations involved. Edel Hunt’s questions and ten Haaf’s answers were interspersed with ten Haaf’s enthusiastically introduced passages from Wright’s play, which he read in character, as the playwright’s Vincent. No doubt the production’s original Director, Richard Eyre and/or playwright Nicholas Wright, (the latter of whom was apparently in the audience but did not wish to make himself known), would have been in better positions to be able to shed light on the aforementioned research processes. As it was however, we were left with a rather entertaining, somewhat light-hearted portrait of two young actors playing a young man who unbeknown to him at the time the play is set in, was destined to become one of the art world’s true visionaries.

This unusual interview between two actors who’ve played the same role gradually evolved into a Q & A with the audience, one member of which firstly, wanted to know whether the actors had drawn on their own personalities at all in order to enact their roles. Ten Haaf,  who’d stated during the course of their interchange that he didn’t think Van Gogh was technically ‘that good’ of an artist, citing ‘the things Vermeer did with light’ as truly amazing, quickly adding that there is ‘truth to what Van Gogh did, without which art today would be different,’ was the first to answer. In relation to similarities to his character, the actor claimed that in addition to their mutually ginger hair, Van Gogh’s straightforwardness and bursts of aggression were things he could also identify with, as well as the fact that the artist could get ‘really, really upset...the anger was easy to was the madness, at the end.’ To tie in with these revelations, ten Haaf read a brief passage from the play in which Vincent, ragged but creative returns three years on to visit the Loyer family in Brixton, stating, ‘Jesus was the greatest artist of all time...I will become a preacher... and then, I will truly be an artist.’ The fact that ten Haaf added that at the time he originally played Vincent he was, like his character, himself ‘the Dutchman in London’ who ‘took long walks on Sundays’ to get acquainted with the city lent a certain naiveté to his portrayal that though he initially felt was ‘not very good’ ultimately enhanced both his identification with his character and his credibility in the role. Ultimately, ten Haaf’s admonition that Van Gogh’s character was always subject to mercurial changes confirmed that he was a ‘good character’ to play, though less gifted actors may term such a character challenging.

When the hour had passed, I wondered in hindsight, which of the many actors who have played Vincent was ten Haaf’s favourite, and as he seemed friendly and approachable, I asked him. Though he agreed with both me and the smiling New Yorker who’d been chatting with him that American film director Martin Scorsese had made a terrible Vincent in the Van Gogh segment of late Japanese film Director Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990), and Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life (1956, Director Vincente Minnelli) hadn’t been ‘that bad’ as the artist, the actor who had himself played Vincent as a young man most effectively on stage cited Tim Roth as a personal favourite in the role, seconding my refusal to accept the viewpoint of film director Robert Altman (Vincent and Theo - 1990) that the Van Gogh brothers must have been gay. However, the ultimate actor in the role, according to ten Haaf who accompanied me as I made my way to the reception room, was in his considered opinion, the actor who’d assumed the part in a recent Dutch-Belgian mini-series about the painter. ‘Did I know of it,’ he asked.  ‘No, I didn’t,’ I’d answered, but thanks to his knowing lead, I intend to ask a London based Dutch friend to look into it for me.

Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington House
Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD
              020 7300 8000        
Clare Higgins as Ursula with Jochum ten Haaf as Vincent in Vincent in Brixton


Editors Note: Sadly, Vincent in Brixton which has been screened on British TV in the past, is no longer available on DVD in this country, though it is still is in the States.  However, the general consensus of both actors and audience at this talk is that it is high time this marvellous play was made into a film, preferably an independent, art-house one.






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