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Friday, 21 January 2011

The Painter at the new Arcola Theatre in Dalston


Hidden away behind Dalston High Street is the new home of the Arcola Theatre, a converted paint factory which Turner and Constable probably frequented at the start of the 19th Century. Conveniently close to not one but two train stations, this area of London isn’t as distant as you may assume. Having said that, I did get a bit lost, despairing when I ended up in the messy aftermath of Dalston’s Friday food market. Resorting to technology, I consulted my blackberry and found that I’d walked right past the correct turning.

The theatre is still very much a work in progress with wires draped precariously down the walls, and many other temporary measures in place. The other visitors seemed to relish the treacherously trendy surroundings, perching on the edge of the battered sofas, glass of red wine in hand. I guess this kind of venue is what makes East London so cutting edge cool, all very Fringe Theatre.

We were all here for the opening of the new space and the special performance of ‘The Painter,’ a play written specially for the occasion by Rebecca Lenkiewicz. At 7.15 we were ushered into the theatre, an intimate auditorium with surrounding brick walls, I was immediately struck by the charming character of the place. The lighting is what makes this stage so magical, the romantic reflections, moody shadows and gentle chiaroscuro transport the audience to another age entirely. The stage is dressed beautifully with pigment stained cloths, pages and pages of drawings, candles and old furniture and most importantly the artist’s easel. When I wished to avert my eyes from the actors there was much to admire and examine on the set. As a daughter of two artists, I can honestly say this messy studio array was very accurate.

The play is split into twenty-three short scenes, fragments of the artist’s life and memories, much like a retrospective exhibition. The mesmerising Dido’s Lament begins and concludes each half of the play. Other musical excerpts are used throughout, and are mostly appropriate, although occasionally reminded me of the ‘Famous Five’ storybooks on cassette! We meet Turner as a young man in 1799, obsessive and strange, as he is starting out his career as an artist. He has just moved into his new studio with his father, to assist him. Lenkiewicz decides to focus on the artist’s emotions and reactions, unfortunately examining his fascinating body of work very little. The painful relationship he has with his vicious mother and his awkwardness with women dominate much of the story. He is loved but seems unable to love anything apart from the glorious seascapes and landscapes that he paints.

Artistic Director Mehmet Ergen has a strong set of actors to work with. Toby Jones is impressive as the great artist, the small man has great expression in his face, and becomes a persuasive lead as the play goes on. Turner’s father is played by Jim Bywater, a reserved man with a quiet demeanor, I found his performance very convincing and even quite moving at times. Niamh Cusack eventually persuades ‘Billy’ into commitment, as Turner’s widowed lover, though seems to later regret it as he ignores her, even when she is carrying his child. Denise Gough is a breath of fresh air as Turner’s prostitute friend and model Jenny, she is exciting to watch and has real presence on stage when speaking up to the arrogant artist.

There was the offer of an after show celebration, but I reluctantly declined remembering the long journey home. As we left, a brave girl stood by the door playing the accordion and singing a lilting Edith Piaf song with great gusto. It was beautiful, and a lovely end to a very memorable evening. I wish the new Arcola the best of luck and look forward to visiting again when they have the central heating working!

The Painter continues until 12 February 2011, book here.

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