Wright On

Wright On Vincent in Brixton author Nicholas Wright on art, love and sacrifice. His play about the early years of Vincent Van Gogh is playing at Broadway's Golden Theatre through May 4.
Clare Higgins and Jochum ten Haaf in Vincent in Brixton.
Clare Higgins and Jochum ten Haaf in Vincent in Brixton. (Photo by Ivan Kyncl)

Nicholas Wright, who was in the midst of talking about art and compromise, suddenly stopped, struck by a memory.

"About 15 years ago," he said, "I was in Arles, on holiday. I was sitting at a café, and looked across the square to another café and realized that that was the café of 'Starry Night.' I did think, here I am, sitting at the very same table where Vincent van Gogh once sat, across from the café in that painting." (The painting is actually called "The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night," but there is a measure of starry sky in it, over the rooftops, and this canvas will be followed nine months later at Saint-Rémy by the swirling "Starry Night" itself.)

"The café has since been repainted in Van Gogh colors," said Wright. "All yellow and red. They've made it as Van Gogh as they can."

In 1873, a decade and a half before either Arles or Saint-Rémy, a smartly dressed, red-haired 20-year-old Dutchman — just arrived in London as sales representative of Goupil & Co., art dealers — rents a room from a Mrs. Ursula Loyer of Brixton, a widow who takes in boarders. Despite his job, it has never crossed his mind to do any painting of his own, though he does a bit of idle sketching now and then. Another of Mrs. Loyer's boarders, a house-and-furniture painter named Sam Plowman (Pete Starrett), does indeed aspire to be a celebrated artist. He also has eyes for Eugenie (Sarah Drew), the landlady's daughter. So does Vincent.

It is here that Vincent in Brixton begins — the clean, sure play by Nicholas Wright that comes from rave London runs at the National (Cottesloe) and Wyndham's Theatres to a Lincoln Center presentation at the Golden Theatre. The director, now as then, is Richard Eyre. Now as then the stars — a London Evening Standard Award nomination for him, Evening Standard and Olivier Awards for her — are Jochum ten Haaf (a sensational young Hollander) as Vincent and Clare Higgins as Ursula Loyer. It is 20-year-old Vincent and mid-forties Ursula who, in this work, share a bed in mutual solace. A projection by Wright? "Yeah. I don't know that it happened. Just filling in the dots there . . . This is not only Clare's American debut, she's never been to the United States at all. And she's incredible." Wright also filled in some dots by having Vincent sketch a battered old pair of his own boots way back in Brixton, long, long before they were ever put to paint at Arles.

Who knew that Van Gogh spent a year in London? "I found out about it in Martin Bailey's Young Vincent, a nice book that is out of print," said Wright. "What intrigued me is it's so incongruous — the bright colors and blue skies of Vincent's France against the prosaic and dull colors of London."

Vincent in Brixton started in Wright's head when, in Young Vincent, he discovered "that the other lodger in Ursula Loyer's house wanted to be a painter and Vincent did not. Sam Plowman ended up a decorator and painter of sorts, but married and with a family and all that. It fascinated me — the creative urge to achieve anything, and how much you have to give up."

Mr. Wright, you've just laid yourself open to a left hook. What have you had to give up?

"Me? The play is about the duality in myself. Wanting to be an artist, and at the same time wanting security. Vincent gave up everything: his health, his teeth fell apart, ultimately his life. He killed himself in his thirties. Well, most of us don't do that. We say: 'I'll give up so much and no more.' Vincent didn't bargain in any way."

Wright took a deep breath.

"I started life as an actor," said the Capetown-born Englishman who had arrived in London at 18 to study acting at LAMDA. "I acted for two years. I don't know if I stopped acting or it stopped me. I was a terrible actor. I didn't know I'd be a writer, but I always knew I'd be in the theatre.

"I've directed, and I ran a small theatre. For a long time I was a literary manager, much of it for the National Theatre, and during Richard [Eyre's] last five years [running the National], I was Associate Director there.

"I had a lot to do with what plays we did, and then I took two months off to write the first draft of Mrs. Klein [the tough-minded drama that starred Uta Hagen as pioneering child psychoanalyst Melanie Klein]. But I never found it possible to do an original play there. I could do adaptations and television scripts easily enough, but not plays. As a literary manager you exercise your critical muscles. For your own play, you don't want to be critical. You want to get down to it."

The house where young Vincent rented his room from Ursula Loyer is at 87, Hackford Road, SW9. "Just a very simple house, really," says Nicholas Wright. The people who live there today get Christmas cards every year addressed to Vincent van Gogh.