One of the most chronicled of artists is put through the biographical mill once more in Nicholas Wright’s decidedly interior Royal National Theater play, which doesn’t demonstrate much of a lust for life. The true topic of “Vincent in Brixton” is two souls joined together in sorrow, whose unlikely love ultimately gets replaced by zealotry on the one hand, a soul-stirring acceptance of diminished expectations on the other. Wright takes his time getting to the final scene of a leisurely evening that can be as earnest as its gauche and forthright title character. But for all the irritations along the way, the play ultimately delivers a genuine punch, abetted by a director (Richard Eyre) and distaff lead (Clare Higgins) who have come to suggest themselves as an increasingly invaluable theatrical pair.
Eyre and Higgins have worked together numerous times, most notably on a commendably hallucinatory production of “Sweet Bird of Youth” in 1994 for which she won a best actress Olivier. I’m not sure there’s another director who so intuitively understands this performer’s skill for communicating rapture cheek-by-jowl with an inheld, clenched despair that never descends to self-pity. In “Vincent in Brixton,” Higgins plays Ursula Loyer, the fortysomething landlady of the south London home where the 20-year-old van Gogh — not yet a recognized artist, even to himself — took up lodgings in the 1870s.
At first, Vincent (played by Jochum Ten Haaf, a Dutch actor possessed of an immediately appealing gawkiness) is taken with Eugenie (Emily Blunt), Ursula’s daughter, who is pursuing a stealthy liaison with fellow lodger and wannabe artist Sam (Paul Nicholls), despite Sam’s assessment of himself as “the wolf that walks alone.” But slowly, Ursula — not to mention the transfixing actress who plays her — begins to exert an allure on the tenant half her age, with Vincent in turn finding a soulmate of sorts in the older woman’s grief: She is, he says, “a mirror of my despair.”
Ursula has been mourning her late husband for 15 years, clad in a customary black that Vincent manages to lighten, along with her spirits. By the closing scene, several years have passed, Vincent has pushed on and Ursula is back in her widow’s garb, her daily routine turned to the school she runs for young children — think of her as Masha and Olga in “Three Sisters” rolled into one.
What exactly happened to van Gogh during his stay in London? Wright shows a fevered man teetering on the apostolic brink, who has a catalytic effect on the very person determined to swear off that depth of feeling. Once reawakened into passion, Ursula’s withdrawal from it is, accordingly, that much more acute: “Giving up hope,” she concludes, “isn’t mad, just practical.”
Wright has a distinguished ancillary career as a translator (not to mention as the theater historian who co-authored the recent “Changing Stages” with Eyre). It’s not that much of a stretch, then, to see the shadow of Chekhov on multiple fronts, with the eventually married Sam and Eugenie poignantly coarsened into a Lambeth version of Andrey and Natasha, also from “Three Sisters.” Vincent would, of course, go on to kill himself, Konstantin-like, at a shockingly young age, but Wright leaves this clearly aberrant visionary on a precipice, discovering his own powers as an artist while shutting out the prospect of true and reciprocated love.
The material hardly allows for a lot of laughs, and the ones achieved at the expense of Vincent’s nagging sister Anna (Emma Handy) seem too crude by half. (Why go to the extent of hiring a genuine Dutchman to play Vincent and then find for his sister a British actress whose lamentably over-the-top accent becomes a running joke?) The writing, too, tends toward the unconvincingly portentous (“Nothing in this house is what it seems,” notes Sam helpfully) and even the flowery, as if Wright were circling around a mating dance whose actual dynamic lies too deep for words.
That realm beyond the spoken is skillfully expressed by Tim Hatley’s Vermeer-like set, a kitchen every bit as quietly evocative (so, too, are the smells of roast lamb that suffuse the auditorium) as his Broadway designs for the London-spawned “Private Lives” are giddy and gay. That production’s lighting designer, Peter Mumford, excels himself here, the light catching the fringes of Ten Haaf’s hair as if the actor were being visibly transformed into a van Gogh canvas.
As for Higgins, visitors to the flexible Cottesloe space — the playing area this time around is a narrow rectangle with spectators on all four sides — owe themselves the sight of the actress toward the end, her gaze jointly one of defiance and defeat. “It starts with something small and then it becomes everything,” Ursula says in a different context late in act one. But the remark applies to a performer whose detailed evocation of loss lands right at the heart.