The Arcola Theatre’s new premises at Dalston Junction are still what an estate agent would call “a fixer-upper, with tremendous potential”. The front-of-house area is cramped compared with its original home, but the main space itself has a height that was lacking in that converted clothing factory; it also retains all its former flexibility, together with the capacity to rake an audience much more effectively in terms of sightlines.
The building was originally Reeves’ Printhouse and Colourworks, producing pigments used by the likes of Constable and J.M.W. Turner, so its opening commission is appropriately a new play by Rebecca Lenkiewicz dealing with the life of the latter artist. We see principally Turner’s relationships with the women in his life: his rejection by his mother, whose instability led him and his father to commit her to a mental hospital; his professional association and personal friendship with prostitute Jenny Cole, whom he hired as an intimate life model; and his relationship with his widowed neighbour Sarah Danby, who bore him two daughters. Yet none of these connections seems to reach the core of the man, who lived in seclusion despite his early fame and success and whose lectures as professor of perspective at the Royal Academy were mumbled and distrait.
Lenkiewicz’s portrait of Turner, and Toby Jones’s central performance in Mehmet Ergen’s production, are faithful to this detachment even at the expense of drama. If the play were a visual artwork, it would be an ink drawing, quite detailed and representational and thus most unlike the shimmering play of colour and light in Turner’s own oil paintings, as suggested by designer Ben Stones on the back wall of the stage.
Above all, this play-drawing would have a broad border of plain white. What we see of Turner here is precise and well delineated; Jones is, after all, an excellent actor, more than ably supported by the likes of Amanda Boxer, Denise Gough and Niamh Cusack, whose features are naturally inclined towards the sad smile that Sarah wears in the knowledge that she is not truly loved. But it never seems to amount to the big picture. Lenkiewicz’s own stepfather was a rather eccentric artist, and this is her second play (after Shoreditch Madonna in 2005) that at once attempts to get under the skin of such a figure yet seems reluctant finally to do so.