Mrs van Gogh




Maidment Theatre, Musgrove Studio until April 28.

With an original van Gogh on show in the Degas to Dali exhibition it seems particularly apt that Galatea Theatre should be presenting an intensely personal attempt to come to terms with the van Gogh mystique.

The production takes us back to a time when the life of the paintings hung in the balance. For Johanna van Gogh - the widow of Vincent's brother Theo - they were primarily a storage problem and the sensible thing would have been to sell the stretchers and consign the paintings to a bonfire. But practical considerations are almost always shunted aside by the presence of the artist who haunts the production like an immovable poltergeist.

Although Johanna had plenty of reasons to resent the way Vincent's anguished existence contributed to her husband's early death, she worked tirelessly at translating the brothers' voluminous correspondence which became so influential in shaping modern understanding of van Gogh.

Playwright Geoff Allen establishes a wonderfully idiosyncratic voice with this boldly experimental piece of expressionist theatre. The programme notes make it clear that the work has arisen out of a life-long engagement with van Gogh's art that included an overwhelming experience on visiting the artist's grave, and I felt the play might have gained in relevance if some of this material had been in the script.

The cast rises to the challenge of the psychologically demanding roles, with Gina Timberlake's portrayal of Johanna's quiet but resolute determination providing a foil for the stormy emotions of the brothers. John Goudge captures both the brooding intensity and childlike vulnerability of the tortured artist, while Brendan Lovell gives a moving account of Theo's anxiety.

The production is clearly a heart-felt labour of love for everyone involved, with the playwright making eight well-executed copies of van Gogh paintings and John Goudge composing a powerful musical score. The work brings us closer to understanding the power of van Gogh's vision, demonstrated at galleries around the world when people find themselves inexplicably moved to tears as they stand in front of one of his paintings.