Saturday, June 27, 2015

'Asking Rembrandt' at the Old Red Lion Theatre, 26th June 2015

Set within fragments of a gigantic picture frame, lit with warm sepia-tinged light and spattered with long-dried paint, the set of Asking Rembrandt believably drags its audience back to well-used studio in 17th century Amsterdam. This is the setting for Steve Gooch's exploration of art vs commerce, told through a year or so in the life of Rembrandt.

We meet Rembrandt (Liam McKenna) at a difficult time. He's an established master craftsman producing a steady stream of work - every well-to-do mokummer wants a Rembrandt hanging above their fireplace. Problem is, they want a portrait as status symbol rather than to appreciate Rembrandt's artistry. As such they pepper him with demands and alterations - his experimental leanings squashed under the popular idea of what a Rembrandt painting is. Now he's got a reputation as difficult, when clients are splurging hundreds of gilders for a portrait, figuring 'the customer is always right'

His personal situation only adds to his woes. Following the death of his wife Saskia he's taken up with former maid Henni (Esmé Patey-Ford), their unmarried status causing the disapproving church to publicly brand her as a "whore". The rest of his personal relationships are similarly rocky; his son Titus (Loz Keyston) bridling under his father's ego; and John Six (John Gorick) doing his best to keep their friendship sliding too far into business.

Asking Rembrandt's best quality is that it's straightforwardly interesting. Seeing Rembrandt, whose name has become is a byword for 'master painter', as a conflicted, indebted and stressed craftsman instantly humanises him. You might think that you'd struggle to relate to the interpersonal and financial worries of a 17th century Dutch painter, but very quickly we understand and empathise with him.

That's down to skilful writing, backed up with what I assume is an awful lot of careful research. It's also equally due to wonderfully earthy performance from Liam McKenna. This Rembrandt is a fleshy, sturdy, deeply proud character - almost Falstaffian in his body language and behaviour. Some of the finest moments are when he talks dirty, telling Henni that he'd like to "lick her like a bear with its tongue in a honeypot". Oh Mr Rembrandt, I've come over all a-flutter!

Rembrandt's sexual and artistic confidence goes some way to the art vs commerce debate at the centre of the play the much needed emotional dimension. We can see why his partner loves him, why his best friend wants the best for him and why his son (despite his protestations) craves his father's respect. By about the halfway point we're invested in what Rembrandt is doing, rooting for him to be able to express himself without financial and social shackles.

Despite those successes, there's a sense of slightness in Asking Rembrandt. Coming in at a svelte 75 minutes we whistle through time at breakneck speed. For example, at the close of one scene Henni informs Rembrandt that she's pregnant, the next scene she's 8 months in and a couple of minutes later the baby's arrived. This makes the secondary characters into satellites orbiting Rembrandt rather than people in their own right. Perhaps the biggest victim of this is his son Titus, who gets a few short scenes to define his character.

Similarly, though the emotional dimension is welcome, the play does eventually boil down to a slightly dry argument on the compromises an artist must make to put food on their table. As I said, this is definitely interesting, but it settles on massaging the brain rather than trying to whomping you in the heart. 

Asking Rembrandt is (as is standard for the Old Red Lion) a technical success. The set oozes personality and the soft lighting subtly recalls Rembrandt's aesthetic. The cast are similarly top class: McKenna the obvious star attraction but Patey-Ford's Henni is impressively full of joie de vivre, managing the impressive feat of making a 17th century dutchwoman's costume rather coquettish. Despite these positives, I never quite felt involved in proceedings, admiring the play from a academic distance as opposed to losing myself in its rhythms and passions.


Asking Rembrandt is at the Old Red Lion until the 18th of July. Tickets here.

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