Nicholas Wright's Vincent in Brixton, which throws some (fictional) light on a little-known episode in the young artist's life, when Vincent van Gogh lodged with a bohemian family in Brixton, South London, has been one of the biggest hits for the National Theatre in 2002.
The play, directed by Sir Richard Eyre, has transferred to Wyndham's Theatre in the hope of adding commercial to critical success, and officially opens on Aug. 5.
Theatrenow went to the stage door of the National to meet Jochum ten Haaf, the young Dutch actor whose sensational portrait of the intense young artist has been one of the most talked-about performances this year.
Is this your first acting role in England? "Yes. I've visited England before, but this is my first acting job." How did you get the part? "Richard Eyre, our director, has a friend who is a casting director in Holland, and asked him to find some young actors who could play Vincent, and I was one of those the agent thought of."
How difficult is it to play a lead role in a foreign language? "It is a challenge, but then it's also a great opportunity. How often does a young Dutch actor get a chance to play such a role at the National Theatre and, now, in the West End? It's a wonderful way to expand my career, and I'm enjoying it!
"As for the language, a lot of people in Holland speak English, and I wrote a play with a friend for the International Director's Congress in Maastricht, and we decided to write it in English, so that it would reach a wider audience.
"In Holland plays are always in Dutch, of course, and there are a lot of very good actors, and writers, but the potential audience for your work, your skill, is relatively limited, as Dutch tends to be spoken only in Holland. With a play in English — and performed in London —your work is seen by a much larger audience. Which, given that there are a lot of young English actors who could have played this role, is why I'm so pleased to be here in this play."
Why do you think van Gogh is still such a popular artist? "We have a huge range of very good artists in Holland, especially from the 'Golden Era,' the seventeenth century. A lot of painters can create an attractive picture, skillfully executed, on canvas, but a great artist is one who not only shows you a portrait or a landscape that is well drawn, but gives you something of himself as well.
"With Vincent van Gogh you not only get the flowers, or countryside, or stars, but you get a sense of what he was feeling while he saw it, while he painted it. His work is very intense, as he was, and as Nicholas Wright has drawn him in this play, and people find that very attractive."
Did you do much research on the character? "I read his letters, which are fascinating, and a biography. His life was a drama, which is one reason why this play works so well. He had a dramatic life, he was looking for something. In the play we see him as a young man, about 19, who is easily influenced, and who gets the most from each new experience and then moves on.
"That happens to everyone at that age, but with him there was this greater sense of drama, and in life — as in his work — he managed to be both an introspective, searching person and an extrovert with extraordinary energy as well, which is a rare and very engaging quality."
How do you think the West End transfer will affect the production? "Every performance of a play is slightly different each night, and that's partly a function of having a different audience, with different attitudes and energy, every night. So I think that we will have a very different feel at Wyndham's.
"At the National you have a very dedicated audience, whereas in the West End you have more spur-of-the-moment people, who happen to be in the West End and like the look of the poster or the production photos, and think they'll give it a try. They have less settled expectations of the play, and they bring something different to the evening. It may be we will have to work more to grip them. We'll see!"
Speaking of different acting environments, what's the main difference between the Dutch theatre scene and the English one? "In Holland there's a great gap between subsidized and commercial theatre. Actors simply don't cross over between the two as they do in London. The other difference is that theatre-going in Holland is done by a smaller percentage of the population, and those who go tend to be more cynical, more critical than in London.
"In England there's more of a sense of people being relaxed about going to see a play. They are more prepared to experiment; they want to be entertained. That's a major cultural difference, I think, and I'm looking forward to seeing how our West End audiences react to us!"
Vincent in Brixton, now previewing at Wyndham's Theatre, opens there on Monday, Aug. 5.
—By Paul Webb Theatrenow