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Brighton Fringe 2023

Low Down

I’m softly humming “Starry, starry night …” to myself as I’m starting to write this review. Can’t help it – Don McLean’s song is so evocative, and in ‘Vincent’ the singer leads us to think of all the colours in van Gogh’s paintings that we know so well.

“Paint your palette blue and gray, look out on a summer day …”

and also – “Colours changing hue, morning fields of amber grain, weathered faces lined with pain, are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand …”


There’s a lot of pain in this production, but also a sense of the intensity with which Vincent van Gogh experienced the world. Here’s how he described one of his paintings in a letter to his brother Theo – “Town violet; Star yellow; Sky blue-green; Wheat fields have all the tones: old gold, copper, green gold, red gold, yellow gold; green, red and yellow bronze …”

It’s Theo who’s telling us the story. It’s a one-person show, written by Joseph Winder, and performed by him in the rather intimate space of the Junk Poets theatre at Caravanserai. A small circular acting area – surrounded by several tiers of seating which gave it the feel of a cock-pit – strewn with sheets of typewritten paper, and stalks of wheat.

When Theo enters, he’s dressed in a white collarless shirt, and a dark waistcoat above grey-green trousers, and with his short dark hair and beard he looks like he might be a Jehovah’s Witness. Close – his father was a church Minister, and Theo and his brother always retained a sense of the numinous.  It seems that it’s shortly after Vincent’s death, and Theo kneels at one point as he talks to us, tear-stained eyes closed, turning his head towards the sky, from which rain (we can hear it on a sound track) is softly falling.

Those sheets of paper are the letters that Vincent wrote to Theo – eighteen years of missives, over six hundred in all, telling of the painter’s artistic vision and travels, and also of his deteriorating mental state. Remember Vincent’s description of the colours of wheat in one letter? – Theo picks up a stalk of wheat from the floor and runs it across his own ear, in a chilling evocation of his brother’s self-mutilation.

He’s clutching a package, too – paint-spattered clothing of his brother’s, and some of his own letters to Vincent.  Theo was the younger of the two brothers, but in his career as an art dealer he’d been more successful than the artist, and he was able to give financial support to the penniless Vincent.   I have a  brother myself, and Winder manages to convey perfectly that shifting kaleidoscope of feelings that siblings have for one another.

Frustration – “Why does he always need more money?”; tempered with deep love and admiration for what the other is trying to achieve.  Theo tells of the time when, as boys, they were playing by a river and Vincent plucked a beautiful pebble from the freezing-cold water. Even now, years later, he can remember the hundreds of different colours the rock’s crystalline structure contained. But he’d lost that stone – hadn’t seen it in years.

Although he was the younger brother, it was Theo who ‘stepped up’ when their father died, and took care of the family. He has a sense of duty – he was always reliable – “Theo takes care of everyone” he muses to himself.   ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ is actually about grief, about how a stew of conflicting memories and emotions colour how we come to terms with loss.  At one moment Theo is denigrating his dead brother – “I’m glad Father can’t see Vincent dead – Vincent disappointed him and they’d fallen out” … “He was a failure. I’m relieved; I don’t have to invest any more money without receiving anything in return.”  Theo’s self-justifying, too – “I encouraged him, I pushed him – there’d be no Café at Noon, no Sunflowers, no Starry Night, without ME! ” … “You failed, Vincent. – Failed as an artist. Failed as a brother.”

But then the pendulum of loss swings the other way, and Theo tells us of a walk he took just after Vincent’s death. Across a field, seeing the wheat, and the flock of birds, and the midday sun – sitting late into the evening, watching the stars come out.

All the love Theo has for his brother spills out as he thinks of Vincent’s last batch of paintings; the ones from the asylum. “The colours – so beautiful! Why did he have to see the world the way he did? People should realise that he was a great artist.”

“I miss him …”

Vincent was a frantically prolific worker during his time in the South of France, in Arles, and had sent dozens and dozens of his paintings back to his brother in Paris.  Theo talks about displaying them in his gallery, trying to interest prospective buyers in the work.

And here’s the problem – I was hugely engaged with this production: Winder’s performance brought Theo to life for us, making the man so real that I wanted to look further into his story – but there really wasn’t much about Johanna. Theo only mentions his wife Johanna in passing, referring just to their engagement and marriage, and to a family visit to Vincent.  Theo van Gogh died only a few months after his brother’s suicide.  The brothers had been very close (as should be obvious from all the above) and Theo fell into chronic depression following the tragedy, his condition probably exacerbated by the syphilis he’d picked up years before.

It was Johanna, now his widow, and the possessor over four hundred of the artist’s paintings, who initially displayed them in her home, badgering gallery owners and dealers until she managed to achieve, first an exhibition in Paris in 1895, followed by a 1905 exhibition at the Stedelijk museum in Amsterdam. Vincent van Gogh’s work was finally emerging from obscurity – but it was due largely to Johanna’s efforts. She’s also the one who edited and published Vincent’s letters – it’s solely due to her labours that we know so much about the artist’s life.

Obviously the piece is set just after Vincent’s death, when Theo couldn’t have known of his brother’s subsequent fame – but it seems unfair that Johanna van Gogh’s contribution is ignored.  As so often, a woman is written out of art history – it’s a shame the author couldn’t have found some way to include her in the narrative.

But that caveat doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the production. At the close, Theo did a final check of the package of clothing and letters of Vincent’s. He rummages through – and there, at the very bottom, he discovers a small pebble … the one that Vincent had found in the river, and that Theo had mislaid years before.


Now, I think I know what you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they’re not listening still
Perhaps they never will


Strat Mastoris