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Van Gogh

by on 23 October 2021

Drawn out

Van Gogh

Synaestheatre, OSO Arts Centre, Barnes, until 24 October

Review by Matthew Grierson

If you go to see the Starry Night, the Bedroom in Arles or one of the Sunflowers, I suspect that even now there would be quite a crowd in front of you, vying to view Van Gogh’s best-known works. If you go to see Jonny Danciger’s Van Gogh, this experience is recreated by having the works projected on to the backdrop and then bundling musicians, singers, conductor and actor in front. At least, I think we were supposed to see the paintings: from my (disad)vantage point in the stalls, the sightlines were even less clear, so they may simply have been screensavers from the 1990s.

The show works from Vincent’s letters, which are variously set to music, declaimed by Louis Pieris, or screened on the glass-fronted chalkboards that half-mask the musicians. There may also be a moment when Pieris is directly scrawling correspondence on the boards, but the chalk is illegible. At other times, he jives spikily to discordant, post-punk guitar, presumably to convey the painter’s mental troubles. He ends the show with his head in bandages, per the self-portrait, that are drawn out to bind him into the screens.

As such, Van Gogh is a plethora of impressions rather than a coherent piece. One would expect that the life of an artist demanded a clear vision, but attending to the details Danciger seems to have lost sight of the big picture. More is, in fact, less.

Some of those details show inventiveness and promise, at least. The musicians, clad all in white like hospital orderlies, are free to come round front and pose Pieris like an artist’s mannequin, making for an effective sequence in which the painter is forced to perform a series of activities by rote, though I lost track of what this actually signified. This vignette ends with an empty frame jammed over the artist, as if to say he is literally trapped by his calling. When the show nears its hour, musicians once again surround Pieris before taking up their instruments, emphasising the sense that he is isolated.

I guess that the audience is being bombarded with music, visuals and text in an attempt to convey Van Gogh’s state of mind, but once that conceit is established Van Gogh does nothing more with it. Instead, Pieris cycles through jarring, staccato movement – at one point, he looks to be skiing as he pulls an empty frame repeatedly towards him – accompanied by sung refrains from his letters. Perhaps this is meant to convey the experience of living with madness? But the effect is instead repetitive and disengaging.

The most successful aspect of Van Gogh is the music, which at its best is affecting, and brings emotional colour to the piece. The singing of tenor Andrew Woodmansey, bass Chris Murphy and especially soprano Emily Gibson is particularly fine. I would be interested in seeing this given as a performance in its own right in a more accommodating space, with a selective and sparing use of visuals. As it is, Van Gogh’s stars don’t get a chance to shine tonight, and the life of the great artist remains unilluminated.

Matthew Grierson
October 2021

Photography courtesy of Synaestheatre

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