“Not quietly. But violently.” Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s The Painter, at the Arcola, is an understated gem. It unfolds gently, ruminatively, across twenty-three short scenes, but beneath, there is a violence and sanguine passion that resonates deeper and longer than a more dramatic exposition might.
Based on what little is known of William Turner, the painter of the title, and his life, and using extracts from his lecture notes, Lenkiewicz sculpts the sparse material into a beautiful meditation on life and love, spanning several decades. True, there is more heart than art, but as the piece slowly unravels, Lenkiewicz demonstrates not just that she is a writer with an almost anatomical understanding of language, but that she is a craftsman of style and elegance.
Like everything in this delicious production, Toby Jones’ performance as Turner is one of understated beauty. His expressive, homely face betrays a thousand emotions flickering beneath the surface of a man tormented on all sides. The conceit of artist as emotionally restrained is a familiar one, but Jones instead gives us an artist, excessively humile and gentle, with an extravagant tenderness barely concealed beneath the restraint. The relationship between Turner and his father is beautifully drawn, at once loving and yet distant. In an exceptionally acted production, Jim Bywater offers a performance of exquisite detail and observance.
Lenkiewicz rarely does more than allow whispers of the drama beneath the surface to bubble up
Turner’s women provide the emotional landscape of the piece, and it is here that Lenkiewicz excels, drawing the relationships between Turner and his mistress, mother and model with heartbreaking precision. Denise Gough, Amanda Boxer and Niamh Cusack, respectively, grow slowly into their roles through the languid first act, developing rich characters and emotional heft as the heart-wrenching second act moves towards conclusion. The subtle shifts in Turner’s intercourse with them, and their relationships with him are, at times, unbearably revealing. Lenkiewicz rarely does more than allow whispers of the drama beneath the surface to bubble up, lending the piece a filmic quality.
Mehmet Ergen allows this quality to pervade his direction, the pace is deliberately slow to begin with, the moments between each scene allowed to linger, gradually through the scenes he brings the pace to a simmer, but never a boil. The washed out colours of Ben Stones’ beautiful, detailed set and Emma Chapman’s flickering lighting design add to the filmic nature of the piece, slowly building to a design dénouement of breathtaking beauty. Adrienne Quartly’s lush soundscape underpins the whole and textures the play with subtle shadings.
This is quality theatre, with deep passions and rich substance. It is as near a piece of perfect theatre as you will see all year. The Painter is a masterpiece.
***** (5 stars)
Runs until 12th February