4 October, Blyth Performing Arts Centre
Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival 2017
The Blyth Performing Arts Centre is full tonight. A large chequered carpet, a bed, a desk and a painter’s table with standing easel, become both Vincent van Gogh’s home and studio and his brother Theo’s art dealer study. A huge screen fills the wall behind; ‘Vincent’, the only word, written in white light. Doleful, almost sinister, the music loops with whisperings while the audience settles. I am reminded of madness, voices in one’s head, a tragedy then and now. The story un-folds within this space, backlit beautifully with a series of van Gogh’s incredible art works and writings in his own hand.
A bell tolls and Daniel Betty enters but within moments I realize that this is Theo, Vincent’s brother, who is grief struck by his inability to speak at his brother’s funeral. He is grateful for another chance, the chance to speak to us directly and to make us understand.
As Theo builds the picture of sensitive Vincent’s life – a passionate, evangelistic man who describes himself as a bird in a cage, yearning to fly – we also get to see Vincent’s interaction with Theo. These transitions are masterful and hardly require the scant use of a blue scarf and a small grey blanket.
First Theo speaks to us, appealing to our reason and compassion, reading from Vincent’s letters, using humour to deride his dark fervour, “…overzealous don’t you think?” There is relief in the audience’s laughter.
Then, with a change of stance, Vincent appears, the voice clearly another soul. He does not speak to the audience directly but appeals to Theo for approval, advocacy and for money, always needy and pleading for more, his life a crisis of poverty. Painting and struggling to make a difference, Vincent decries the cruelty of life, the judgment of family and society, his unrequited life.
This constant chasing of the unattainable in religion, love, fame and fortune, is directly opposite to Theo’s life – order, a happy marriage, unremarkable … but for his frantically prolific, genius brother. So fierce are Vincent’s arguments he wears Theo out, who, with frustration, shouts at Vincent’s memory: “When will you learn to love yourself?” They are the left and right brain to each other and as indivisibly linked by brotherly love.
And now it matters that yellow was Vincent van Gogh’s favourite colour; his friends brought sunflowers to mourn his body, rejected by the Church, laid out on a billiard table. Theo speaks of Vincent’s anguish of soul but in the end, brought back to Vincent’s death, we are left with Theo’s own grief and are confronted with the question of what we expect from our artists, “Do you want them to fulfill your social needs as well?”
Real tears close this poignant sharing of a tragic life. Presented so convincingly, with genuine feeling, the audience is moved to a standing ovation, vocal with appreciation of the weight of the work and gratitude for its generous rendering.