LYNSEY FORD reviews ‘Asking Rembrandt’ at The Old Red Lion.

Set in the Netherlands in 1658, Steve Gooch’s third play, Asking Rembrandt’, focuses on the fractious relationship between Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (Liam McKenna) and patron-cum-poet-cum-magistrate Jan Six (John Gorick). As the two men battle and jostle for artistic control, middle-aged Rembrandt is desperately trying to avoid bankruptcy. Seeking solace in the confines of his home studio with the company of his common-law wife Hendrickje ‘Henni’ Stoffels (Esmé Patey-Ford) and his surviving son Titus (Loz Keystone), he relies upon the latter, despite his chastisements, for impartial advice as a business advisor. The once steady flow of portrait commissions has ground to a halt thanks to Rembrandt’s volatile and unpredictable temper: he argues with wealthy clients and ignores project deadlines. Jan Six provides Rembrandt with a substantial loan by sitting for a portrait, but their artistic collaboration ends in bitter recriminations when Rembrandt realises that he cannot paint on his own terms. Gooch asks the question, who has control and ownership within the art world: the artist, ‘the establishment’ or the wider public community?

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Liam McKenna captures the arrogance of Rembrandt well, deftly conveying his flawed character as a greedy, lustful man who has over-exceeded his grasp on reality. He successfully portrays the artist as a pauper with an over-mortgaged house, who is oblivious to the humiliation of his mistress Henni and is subsequently condemned by their local Calvanist church for living in sin. McKenna has a roguish charm and passion as the unlikely Casanova, ably holding court upon the tiny corner stage of The Old Theatre Lion Pub. Equally as plausible, Gorick as the ruthless dandy Jan Six, a smooth orator of Simon Callow’s ilk who outfoxes Rembrandt with fierce intellect, societal connections, and wealth. Patey-Ford provides excellent support as the selfless Henni, relating her vulnerability and insecurity having been left in the shadow of Rembrandt’s late wife Saskia. Her inability to cope with being alienated as town pariah and her bewilderment at Rembrandt’s refusal to make a legal commitment are well-communicated. Keystone portrays the wide-eyed Titus as a cheeky foil to the irritable Rembrandt, becoming his chief ally in his decline.

Designer Alex Marker cleverly suspends large broken gilt frames above Rembrandt’s door symbolising the downfall and disintegration of Rembrandt the Artist. Expensive drapes and the use of a silk screen provide a secret hideaway to saucy shenanigans between Henni and Rembrandt; the studio is smeared with paint and littered with knick knacks. Jonathan Kent expertly directs the talented company of four actors who seamlessly weave in and out of the exits between partially lit doorways and easels (ignoring the distracting Angel traffic outside), offering a candid portrait of ambition, class, and sex. ‘Asking Rembrandt’ is a well-constructed, intelligent piece of theatre.

‘Asking Rembrandt’ runs until the 18th July. For more information and tickets: http://www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk/asking-rembrandt.html

Images credited to Chris Gardner.