An enjoyable if lightweight play about the great painter
Like Madonna, Vangelis and Björk, the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn thought it would be easier for everyone if he just stuck to his first name. Steve Gooch’s new period play looks at Rembrandt’s life and work, and whether artists have to compromise if they’re ever to make any money.
Gooch builds up long, pithy exchanges that are always capped by some mildly witty line. With Old Master paintings now hung in the grandest buildings, surrounded by white walls, marble floors and reverential hush, it’s easy to think of these legendary artists as demanding that same sanctity and solemnity. So it’s pleasing that in Gooch’s play Rembrandt is instead foul-mouthed and self-obsessed, and the characters speak to each other colloquially and conversationally about sex, money and art.
Liam McKenna’s gruff and be-smocked Rembrandt works best when he’s sparring playfully with his son Titus (Loz Keystone), but at times the cast seems to be going through the motions in the way they deliver their lines, and when that’s combined with several mis-timed cues it occasionally makes for tepid viewing.
The star of the show, though, is Alex Marker’s beautiful set, surrounded by vast gilt frames. It’s a detailed mock-up of an artist’s studio where everything is smeared with paint, and knick-knacks – cups, feathers, fruit – adorn the shelves, ready to be plucked at random and arranged for a still life.
‘Money doesn’t guarantee good work,’ Rembrandt says. Commissions come with complications: fulfilling the customer’s expectations, delivering on time. Gooch considers the eternal quandary of how an artist can reconcile making art with making a living. Customers care about the product, not the process, especially if they’ve paid through the nose for a painting and it ends up looking like a demonic Peppa Pig (just look at portraits of Rembrandt’s wife Saskia).
Great art is more than accuracy or realism. It’s more than talent. It needs that intangible spark, that spirit or soul that can elevate it and make it sublime. Rembrandt’s work, helped by the value that the centuries have added, had it. This play doesn’t.