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Walcott shoots for the moon Castries debut for O Starry Starry Night

Sunday, August 18, 2013
A scene from O Starry Starry night

Derek Walcott’s most recent play, O Starry Starry Night, premiered in the Caribbean at Samaan’s Park in Choc, Castries, St Lucia, on August 8. It featured a small cast and centred around the famous meeting between artists Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh in Arles, in the south of France, during the years when Van Gogh’s mental decline—ironically at his artistic zenith—was becoming most evident. These were also the years after Gauguin had lost his financial footing, having previously worked as a stock broker, and was depending on financial support from van Gogh’s brother Theo, who worked in the gallery where some of Gauguin’s works were sold. Yet, even after I have just told you above what the play is about, after seeing the play one may still be inclined to ask, “What about the meeting of Van Gogh and Gauguin is the play about?” What is its central tension? What moves the play along?



These are the questions I believe the play ultimately failed to answer. In terms of history/l’histoire, the play remained accurate, but in terms of histoire, ie story, which is history given all the energies and niceties of the present tense, it left a lot to be desired. Mind you, the actors, beacons of this present-tenseness, were good. Wendell Manwarren was fantastic as the wry, cynical, hedonistic Gauguin. Whether this is how Gauguin really was is unimportant because this is where story is being made and being given life, flexing its elbows in the historical interstices. This is what theatre is about. Certainly we know Gauguin wasn’t and still ain’t black. And many of us are aware, whether from actually hearing the great man speak or from reading his work, that there was something conspicuously Walcott-esque about both Gauguin’s ribald humour and van Gogh’s high lyricism and even his eccentricity. So the problem is that the play lacks a central tension. Many explorations are broached but never carried through. Take for example the inherent tension and contrast between Gauguin’s agnosticism—in fact, antitheist hedonism—and van Gogh’s piety and the way faith influences his art (as he says: “As in life, so in art”). Or van Gogh’s exploration of the dilemma of the observer through his painting The Potato Eaters.


With several reproductions of famous paintings by both artists on stage (painted by Mr Walcott’s son Peter and St Lucian artist, Gary Butte), one expected somehow that these would serve as antechambers for a journey into the relationship between madness and genius, as we are able to see in the damaged and destitute van Gogh. Van Gogh’s descent into mental instability and dementia contain the quality of the tragic, but is not thoroughly developed into tragedy. Too much remained on the level of sheer allusion. Much of van Gogh’s high lyricism is based on allusions to painting that don’t seem to form a coherent pattern or contain some kind of message. They aren’t interconnected with the action. In fact this high lyricism juxtaposed against the more demotic speech of the other characters is made to seem like part of the madness, part of the utter desolation of the artist who soliloquises about art and faith and virtue—so much unlike Gauguin, who compares the painter sardonically to a stonemason. There are lines such as: “The wind. I would like to paint the wind…” which refers to the painting The Starry Night from which the play takes its name.


Gauguin’s observation when he first arrives to visit van Gogh, that everything in Arles is yellow, seemed a tantalising piece of dramatic irony, giving us a look at van Gogh’s mental palette, for this was a time when van Gogh was experimenting with bolder colour. There is also the scene when van Gogh, who had already begun his descent into mental instability, is asked about a pistol he had coercively purchased from the proprietor M Ginoux. To this question, van Gogh replies: “The pistol is hidden. It remains my secret.” It is an obvious reference to the uncertainty surrounding van Gogh’s alleged suicide. So much of the dialogue comes across as a kind of crossword puzzle for connoisseurs, a game of theatrical Jeopardy. An artist who accompanied me to the second and last showing spent the entire play guessing which painting van Gogh’s dialogues were making reference to. Characters such as Lotte, the prostitute, played by Natalie La Porte of St Lucia (a new member to the cast), suffered because of this lack of a centre in the play. La Porte, who is normally adroit and graceful on the stage, appeared challenged by the code switching between the prostitute’s mixture of sarcasm, innuendo and swift riposte, and the high lyricism that she is occasionally required to give voice to.


The usual trouble with much of Walcott’s plays was present here as well, which is that many of the characters carry Walcott’s voice too conspicuously. Characterisation suffers because it is too easy to see Walcott in the lines and in the arguments and in the humour. In the end, some survive this, such as Brian Green (van Gogh), Wendell Manwarren (Gauguin) or M Ginoux. But others such as the characters Theo van Gogh (Nigel Scott) and Lotte remain superfluous, their purpose ultimately unclear except as an act of fidelity to history. (Theo, who worked at a gallery, was an agent for both van Gogh and Gauguin during this period.) Technically, the play went smoothly. Though the open-air Samaan’s Park attempted to provide the “starry night” feel, it was rained out by the merciless brushstrokes of a heavy downpour on the second night. Gaeity on Rodney Bay was thus chosen as the new venue for the final night, and provided better acoustics for dialogue that one needed to decipher and parse. 


The set, which was predominantly the famous Yellow House where the two great artists stayed, brought to life the method and process of painting, hammering frames downstage from great reproductions done of both men’s acclaimed works. They argue about Gauguin’s use of jute as opposed to canvas—another exploration that was shirked: The relationship between art/experimentation and survival, which would have made Theo van Gogh a lot less dispensable. Many persons may have left the theatre thinking that they had been overwhelmed by Walcott at his best; that they needed to see the play again, or needed to read the script from cover to cover a couple times. I went to see the play on both nights when there was a full showing, and managed to secure a script, and am forced to concur with the almost hidden caveat in the Lakeside Theatre’s description of the play: “O Starry Starry Night is a highly poetic recording of one of the most significant and notorious moments in the history of painting: Paul Gauguin’s visit to a troubled Vincent van Gogh at the Yellow House in Arles, France, 1888.” The key word is “recording.” Audiences can expect entertainment. The dialogue is witty and risqué and quick-paced. The costumes and set are well done. But if one is looking for a story, a deep probing of questions and relationships, I would suggest that one desist from such starry expectations.



Vladimir Lucien is a St Lucian poet who has been published in several international journals. He is pursuing an MPhil in Cultural Studies from UWI, St Augustine.


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