What does someone ask for when they commission art? Something beautiful, a status symbol, an artist’s ‘vision’? And how does the money and expectation behind a commission affect the art itself? These are some of the questions Asking Rembrandt poses, not just of the Master’s paintings, but perhaps, if it doesn’t sound too grandiose, of art itself.
The set looks like it could be the subject of one of Rembrandt’s paintings. The tiny theatre is transformed into a dimly lit studio with beautiful fabrics thrown over chairs and half-finished canvasses spilling from paint-encrusted shelves. The costumes evoke the 1700s with rich colours and attention to detail. The stage itself is edged by broken life-sized golden frames, eliciting comparisons between painting and theatre as art.
The story explores Rembrandt’s life as a widowed painter living in financial difficulty with his mistress and model (Patey-Ford) and teenaged son (Keystone). John Gorick is brilliants as Jan Six, whose ongoing debates with Rembrandt about money and art come to a head when he commissions a portrait. The chemistry between the two men is heated, the banter a delightful mix of vulgarity and incisive observations.
McKenna is charismatic as the master painter, by turns crude, earnest and funny. Acclaimed playwright Steve Gooch clearly has a lot of fun with the script, which bubbles over with witty references to some of the more famous paintings. At one point, Rembrandt holds the sketch for ‘Slaughtered Ox’ over his own torso and asks what the commissioner wants of him, meat on a slab?
Which brings me back to my questions about the relationship between money, expectation and art. One of the reasons this play is so good is because it doesn’t ponder these questions abstractly. It embeds them in the relationships between the characters, in little material details, and explores them with tender, earnest humour.
We are offered a fascinating insight into the lives of a great artist, model and patron. But we are also invited to ask, how much is this production shaped by vision and how much by funding? Whatever the answer, the result is well worth watching.
- By Steve Gooch
- Director: Johnathan Kemp
- Cast includes: Liam McKenna, John Gorick, Esmé Patey-Ford and Loz Keystone
- Old Red Lion Theatre, London
- Until 18 July 2015
- Review by S.A. McCracken
- 26 June 2015