Did we like it?
A sober, sparse play that dealt superbly with the classic dilemma of the poverty of artistic integrity against the empty glory of commercial success and critical acclaim through the downbeat tale of how Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin created masterpieces while holed up in a unkempt hovel in rural France.
What was good about it?
• As it was little more than a psychological duologue between Van Gogh (John Simm) and Gauguin (John Lynch) and it was essential that each acted with enough passion and skill to convey how alike yet also how different the two painters were – a task they excelled at.
• John Simm was magnetic as the tortured Van Gogh as he sought a higher purpose for his being while dismissing all the banalities of life such as food (he only had stale bread when Gauguin visited and chose fruit based on their aesthetics rather than their taste and sustenance), and money (his work was financed by his wealthy brother Theo, who also paid Gauguin to educate Van Gogh to paint in a more commercial style).
• Simm performance was similar – though distinct – of his role of fellow tortured soul Raskolnikov in Crime & Punishment. When he was painting his whole body seemed absorbed by his artistic impulses – a pipe was snared firmly between his teeth while his throat spasmed as he sketched out a rustic vista – “I paint what I feel.” But he also conveyed Van Gogh’s darker side with a malevolent, capricious wooden-toothed grin whenever he felt threatened by Gauguin’s manipulation of his style, or his features would drop to a little-boy-lost during those times he believed Gauguin was about to abandon him.
• John Lynch was equally impressive as the more understated Paul Gauguin. It was never made absolutely clear whether Gauguin was fostering Van Gogh’s talent as part of his artistic compulsion or if he was doing it for the money paid by Theo. Gauguin persistently stressed to Van Gogh for the need to actually sell paintings in order to make a living, but his tutelage was fiercely resisted. And he was driven by sensual pleasures and comfort far more than Van Gogh; during one painting expedition he complains “It must be lunch now!” and later about how his feet ache after the long walk.
• It was this internal conflict which defined Gauguin as he rejoiced when he sold a painting, but was overcome by ecstasy when he discovered Van Gogh’s cache of masterpieces hidden under his bed, making him a kind of 18th century Arctic Monkeys who is talented but as soon as he has a bit of cash he is seduced by the fame and sticks dumb, synchronised dancers in a pop video; willing to compromise such as when he insisted Van Gogh works on shoddy ash cloth rather than the more expensive canvas.
• Despite Van Gogh’s apparent immunity to Gauguin’s destructive teaching, he does succumb to it a little through his jealousy of when Gauguin sells a painting; or perhaps it lay latently within him and Gauguin’s success simply flushed it out raising doubt over their ostensible roles of Gauguin as an artist but Van Gogh as ‘art’.
• The scenery, except for the pair’s ventures into the French countryside, were mostly atmospheric grimy interiors bled of all colour and hope that acutely reflected Van Gogh’s anguish.
What was bad about it?
• For a long period of time Paul Gauguin seemed to be wearing a jumper purchased in the Marks & Spencer New Year Sales.
• Apart from those paraded in museums, there is the indelible tragedy that some of Van Gogh’s paintings are locked away by those people who are the very antithesis of him – those who are able to earn vast fortunes through their cold callousness and then attempt to purchase genius in the form of the paintings as a facile validation of their often worthless lives; utterly numb to their beauty but pleasured by how much they impress their equally soulless associates.
• And leading on from this, the epilogue disclosed that the 40 paintings made by Van Gogh and Gauguin during their stay at the Yellow House currently have a valuation “of £1.5bn”. This footnote was so disheartening, as the whole drama seemed to have been about how the paintings and the genius of Van Gogh couldn’t be captured simply by a monetary valuation, a valuation often determined by the aforementioned soulless businessmen. Why not just put up a slideshow of the 40 masterpieces and let the viewer absorb their exquisiteness? So in this essence alone, Van Gogh was proved wrong, and that commercial viability is more important than artistic integrity. Simon Cowell must be smiling.