Hidden away behind Dalston High Street is the new home of the Arcola Theatre, a converted paint factory that Turner and Constable probably frequented at the start of the 19th century. Conveniently close to two train stations, the Arcola is still very much a work in progress with wires draped precariously down the walls, and many other temporary measures in place. I was here to see Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play, The Painter, written specially for the occasion, telling the story of Turner’s life.
The play is split into 23 short scenes, fragments of the artist’s memories, much like a retrospective exhibition. The mesmerising Dido’s Lament begins and concludes each half of the play. Other musical excerpts are used throughout, and are mostly appropriate, although occasionally reminded me of the Famous Five storybooks on cassette!
We meet Turner as a young man in 1799, obsessive and strange, as he is starting out his career as an artist. Lenkiewicz decides to focus on the artist’s emotions and reactions, only touching on his fascinating body of work a little. Turner’s painful relationship with his vicious mother and his awkwardness with women dominates much of the story. He is loved but seems unable to love anything apart from the glorious seascapes and landscapes that he paints. It’s a moving account with strong performances from the whole cast.
As we left, a brave girl stood by the door playing the accordion and singing a lilting Edith Piaf song with great gusto. It was beautiful, and a lovely end to a very memorable evening. I wish the new Arcola the best of luck and look forward to visiting again when they have the central heating working!
The Painter continues until 12 February 2011, book tickets here.