Wikipedia for the stage [by Rosabel Tan]
At the beginning of Mrs Van Gogh, Johanna Gesina Bonger (Gina Timberlake) introduces herself to the audience. I see my name does not strike a chord, she says. Perhaps you will know me better as Johanna Van Gogh – wife of Theo (Brendan Lovell), sister-in-law to Vincent (John Goudge), and one of the only reasons the latter’s work has survived. Despite this, it’s rare to see her name in print: not only have the paintings outlived her, they have overshadowed her. And so we are taken through the years she spent with the Van Gogh brothers – from her first meeting with Theo through to his death, and finally her efforts to preserve and understand both men.
Written and directed by Geoff Allen, the play is clearly a labour of love – in the programme he describes the influence Van Gogh has had on him, citing his first play, Vincent and Theo, as the basis for the current one. The set is decorated with gorgeous imitation Van Goghs he has painted himself and the score, inspired by the artist, has been composed by the actor playing him. There’s a real sense of the passion underlying the play, but as an audience we feel very little of it.
What the play felt like: Wikipedia for the stage. A compacted biography that doesn’t give its characters a chance to breathe, and which gives us little to connect with emotionally – in one scene, the plucky Johanna tells Theo she is in love with him, but the scene is so short it feels like just another fact thrown at the audience (in Paris, she tells him she loves him), rather than a moment we can experience with her.
And this is what I wanted and what she deserved: not only for her story to be told, but for the sense that it was one worth telling. And we don’t get this. Johanna gets sidelined. It becomes a portrait of everyone else but her, with the Van Gogh brothers given more depth and character. We are told on multiple occasions how bold she is, and how intelligent, and at one point she describes herself as the widow who dares speak her mind – yet whenever she does, it’s dull. We don’t get to see her boldness, or her intelligence, and instead she spends most of her time narrating her actions, taking us through her day and, on occasion, reading a letter that one of the brothers has written to the other.
I wanted to understand her conviction and commitment to Vincent, who she proclaimed to hate on numerous occasions. While her admiration of his work was clear, why she would have spent over a decade after his death promoting it eluded me. Ultimately, it felt like a disservice to her: she preserved something incredible, but the play fails to bring her to life. Time has forgotten her, and we probably will too.
Mrs Van Gogh is presented by Galatea Theatre and plays at the Musgrove Studio, The Maidment Theatre Complex until 28th April. More information see The Maidment.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Nik Smythe