For JMW Turner light was all. His paintings are luminous; they shimmer with the glory of the sunlit sea, they emanate heat. In Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play about his life, his genius is the solid thing at the centre of the text, while Turner the man is far more opaque.
Having been obliged to leave their former home, the Arcola has moved to new premises in a converted paint factory on Ashwin Street. This raw, unfinished space doubles well as Turner’s studio and the atmosphere of the place counts for much in a production that sometimes seems to walk on tiptoe, its tread uncertain.
In choosing Turner as her subject, Lenkiewicz has to grapple with a familiar dilemma. How does one go about showing creative genius on stage? Take away the work and what remains? Though the son of a barber, Turner is utterly assured of his own abilities and seems to relish his role as an outsider. He speaks with mild disdain of the Royal Academy ("English painting is dead") and the ‘fashionables’ but certainly does not suffer from self-doubt; he seems quite certain that his work will live on after him yet Lenkiewicz shows him to be far less capable in his relations with other people, particularly women.
His companion, closest friend and studio assistant is his father; his mother, having lost a daughter in infancy, is gradually unravelling. She resents Turner for having survived to adulthood and though her venom seems a symptom of greater ailment, it is clear her comments cut him.
As Turner, Toby Jones gives a strong, subtle performance, but an essentially reactive one. As played, Turner is a man who gives little away. He accepts things as they come to him and the drive he shows as an artist does not seem to translate into his personal life. He seems genuinely fond of Jenny, the prostitute who becomes the model for a series of anatomical studies, but he even terminates this relationship at the behest of his widowed neighbour, Sarah, with whom he is having a child. He builds a bond with Jenny’s young son but casts him aside too. There seems no malice in his actions; he just does as he is bidden. Denise Gough is superb as this brittle young Jenny; her love for her young son is palpable and she gives a sense that she grasps Turner’s emotional limitations far better than the other women in his life.
Amanda Boxer impresses as his distressed and volatile mother, terrified of the asylum, while Jim Bywater and Jones have an understated rapport as father and son – there is a strong sense of men familiar with each other’s habits, able to communicate without words. Niamh Cusack (who recently played another emotionally ostracised woman, Catherine Dickens, in Out of Joint’s otherwise patchy Andersen’s English) is a mix of calculation and resignation as the widow who desires Turner but knows he will not love her in return.
The play is episodic in structure and takes the form of a collection of short scenes, nicely handled individually but lacking in bite. Lenkiewucz mingles snippets of Turner’s home life with speeches drawn from his lectures to the Royal Academy and, in its fragmentary way, the play gives the audience a sense of Turner. However, having picked as a subject a man so distant, Lenkiewicz has penned herself in. He is both a presence and absence at the centre of the play and, though her writing contains - as ever - moments of lyricism, Turner's remoteness inevitably has an impact on the play’s power.