Ginger Hibiscus | Ginger Hibiscus | Asking Rembrandt at the Old Red Lion Theatre
Ginger Hibiscus | Asking Rembrandt at the Old Red Lion Theatre
Ginger Hibiscus | Asking Rembrandt at the Old Red Lion Theatre
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30 Jun REVIEW: Asking Rembrandt at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Rembrandt is a man almost everyone has heard of, whose art most could pick out, but whose life remains largely underexamined, particularly by those of us who aren’t art historians. A man uncompromising in the pursuit of artistic perfection, his was a life punctuated by women and paragraphed by misfortune, with more than one bullet point of financial woe. Amongst the backdrop of religious turmoil in 17th century Europe, Asking Rembrandt examines the story of one of the masters of the Dutch golden age, at once brought low by the choices he made, yet held on a pedestal thanks to a remarkable artistic prowess.

Asking Rembrandt (c) Chris Gardner (2)It’s a play that takes us straight to the heart of Rembrandt’s home, where following the death of Saskia, his wife and mother of his teenage son, an ambitious mortgage and dwindling cashflow are keeping him up at night. Add to that church disapproval of his new companion, and demands from the slippery Jan Six that he feels are unreasonable, and it could only be nightmares the insomnia keeps him from.

Certainly an interesting insight into the life of such an influential artist, it is, however, a play imperfect in both writing and execution. There’s a strange, and somewhat jarring dichotomy as the 17th century costume sticks against the largely 21st century language and attitudes, compounded by the fact that but for a quick outfit change, Rembrandt’s son Titus could have walked straight from the set of Kevin and Perry Go Large, his shoulder-shrugging characterisation beyond the realms of plausibility.

Inescapable disbelief aside, the script also leaves just a few too many loose ends dangling as the metaphorical curtain falls, resulting in a conclusion that feels really quite unsatisfactory – particularly for a man whose real story extends quite so far, even after his death, and particularly given that as a play it already feels a touch too long.

Despite some clear problems, Asking Rembrandt is certainly good-humoured and watchable, the tricky relationship between the artist and Six in turn funny, infuriating and bizarre. A well-judged set (Alex Marker) strikes exactly the right balance between visual stimuli and straightforward canvas, and the combination of lighting design (Philip Jones) and direction (Jonathan Kemp) result in some lovely moments that reflect Rembrandt’s painting techniques on stage, most memorably the use of low lighting and a mirror to create Rembrandt’s signature chiaroscuro in the opening scene.

This melange of elements that really do work, inseparable from those that fall far from the mark result in Asking Rembrandt feeling a lot like a portrait by an unknown artist that’s had just the finishing flourishes added by the great man. But that strange portrait tells an interesting story, the play successful as a mechanism for gleaning insight into the life of the painter, strong in its storytelling above all else.

For tickets and information:
Venue: Old Red Lion
Dates: 23rd June – 18th July 2015
Images: Chris Gardner

Star Rating

Ginger Hibiscus don’t like using stars as a headline; we think they’re too reductionist, and that decision-making based on stars misses the point of a review. Just as you wouldn’t judge a personality using a five-point scale, theatre is multi-dimensional. So have a read, and then look at the stars afterwards.
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