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Four Cut Sunflowers - Edinburgh Fringe Interview

It’s the mid-19th century and Europe is being transformed by political and cultural revolution. In the midst of all this change, Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger is left a widow with an incredible inheritance: 400 unsold paintings, a one-year-old baby, and a desire to change the world. This play follows the incredible true story of Johanna, who single-handedly ensured Vincent Van Gogh’s success. An exploration of grief, desire, guilt and duty, which illuminates the woman previously left in the artist's shadow.

Weaving together real letters and diary entries from Johanna, Vincent, and his brother Theo with original dialogue by Manon Harvey, Four Cut Sunflowers is a lyrical and timely examination of the rich history of women’s roles in shaping our contemporary understanding of ‘male’ art and culture, and a testament to the political power of creativity. A cast of four University of Cambridge students – accompanied by original animated projections – lead us through a landscape of colour, light, and change. The play follows Johanna from her marriage to Vincent’s brother Theo in the 1880s to her years spent in Europe promoting Vincent’s art and message following the brothers’ deaths, her foundational role in the women’s socialist movement to her time in New York in the 1910s. 

I caught up with writer Manon Harvey, director Elizabeth Laurence and producer Martha ahead of the show premiering at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Can you tell me what inspired the show?
Manon: My dad is an artist, so growing up I was always surrounded by artwork. He went through a phase of being really interested in the impressionist style and for the longest time I couldn’t really work out what interested him, as I never really ‘got’ what the fuss about Van Gogh’s work was. However, for my birthday he then gave me this book ‘The Woman Behind Van Gogh’, and as soon as I read it I suddenly got to see Van Gogh’s work again, through her eyes. Suddenly I understood why his work was so groundbreaking and why it was so shocking at the time. Reading letters and transcripts and excerpts from her diary and from the letters between Vincent and his brother showed me how much his work meant to real people with real lives, what it stood for, and why it caused such a cultural shift in the history of art. This book honestly completely shifted my perspective on Van Gogh’s art, especially because I could then see the hard work, care and thought that was put in by the woman (Johanna) who dedicated her entire life to making him successful. 

I was honestly so surprised initially that her story was so unknown. Van Gogh’s work is so successful, and yet rarely mentioned is the passion, grief, duty and hard work that went into making his work a success. Like so many other women, Jo has been completely invisibilized in historical narratives, despite her groundbreaking achievements in not only the art movement but also the socialist and feminist movement in the late 19th century. I felt that it was only right to make her visible, to alleviate the sense of injustice I felt after discovering her erasure in patriarchal historical narratives. This play was made as a testament to her strength, to her passion and to her incredible mind, and I hope that others feel as inspired as I did when writing out her story. 

How did your journey with the show begin and what drew you to the project?
Elizabeth: I saw that Manon’s play had won the prestigious CUADC Fringe funding prize and was very intrigued by the concept of uncovering the woman behind Vincent’s work and so applied to direct the show. Manon’s clear interest in visual arts and her wish to focus its relationship to theatre also really appealed to me. 

Martha: have always been interested in the capacity of theatre as a medium to bring a life 'to life' in its insistence on the immediate, on the live, and -- having already loved exploring the relationship between theatre and other visual arts -- was really thrilled to see that Manon had brought the two together with such force, and to tell such an important story. I read her treatment and an early draft of the first few scenes and was completely hooked: both by Jo's story, and Manon's particular way of telling it. The script is so wonderfully infused with history and detail, but also with great humour and humanity. It is an important story, but it's also a funny one, all about art, but fundamentally about human relationships, about the importance of community and connection, and the ways in which art helps us to achieve this community and connection, whether through shared emotional responses -- or more often, and more interestingly -- discordant ones which keep us talking. Seeing the life of Johanna and the greatness of Manon's script brought together by the energy and dedication of the cast and crew has to me spoken so wonderfully to this very human sense of the importance of sharing art, of sharing stories, and it is this that unites Jo's efforts and Manon's. I am so excited to bring the show to audiences in Edinburgh, and to keep the conversations going. 

Did you have to do any research when developing the piece?
Manon: One really important piece of research was reading real diary entries and letters between Vincent, his brother and Jo (some of which make it into the play). I would recommend to anyone reading them if they have the time. Vincent and Jo have such a way with words, they see the world in a completely extraordinary way. It really gave me a newfound appreciation for nature, and their grief, love, passion and desire shines so clearly through the text. Through their eyes, the world is full to the brim with colour, it is already a painting waiting to be placed onto canvas.  The letters and diary entries read almost like poems, they have some extraordinary descriptions of colour and emotion. We can see that their lives were not so different to ours, they struggled with the same sort of anxiety and self doubt and desire that we continue to feel today.  A really important aspect that I noticed when reading the diary entries is that Jo would often describe her emotional state using colour as a motif. We can clearly see the powerful influence that Vincent had on her life, despite his passing he was able to almost speak through her from the grave. I am so grateful to have been able to draw on the rich language and emotional depth contained within these verbatim pieces of text. 

Elizabeth: I spent a lot of time reading Vincent’s letters, most of which are written to his brother Theo. I used some of my favourites as starting points with the cast for devising. The letters are an incredible biographical source for the artist. It was fascinating to read Vincent’s strong views on the meaning and power of art. For Vincent the natural landscape and art are inextricably linked. Vincent had an extraordinary love and reverence for the natural world, once describing a landscape as ‘more than nature, it is something of a revelation’. Colour, and its relationship to life’s experiences, is also a throughline of both Vincent and Manon’s writing; I spent a lot of time looking at Van Gogh’s work and considering his colour choices. 

Jo’s diary entries were also of course a key part of my research. What I found most moving was her writing about the twofold sense of love and loss that she experienced whilst raising her young son without her husband Theo, who died only a year after they married. In one particularly moving entry she describes the ‘Thoughts of Theo that never leave me for a moment’. ‘I always see him in my mind’s eye, walking around with the child in his arms in the early morning and letting him look out of the window at the birds’. All her most cherished moments with little Vincent were touched by the deep sadness that she could not experience them with Theo. This twinned joy and sadness was even more amplified once Vincent Van Gogh’s work finally began to receive critical and popular success, a success that both Vincent and Theo were unable to witness.

How important is it that side of Van Gogh’s legacy is celebrated but more importantly to tell Johanna’s own story?
Manon: When I was younger, I never really ‘got’ why Van Gogh was important, why it should still matter to us. We take it for granted that emotion is represented in art, that the purpose of art is expression, especially as people who make theatre. But Van Gogh truly was a pioneer at the time. The camera had just been invented and people were beginning to question what art was really for - why should we still create it if we can do the same thing in a matter of seconds? He was one of the first to truly explore how art (specifically painting) can be used as a form of capturing sentiment, a way of creating a story, capturing a moment of passion or emotion. 

He showed that experimentation and risk taking in art was still important, that it still meant something. In a world that is increasingly becoming digitised, where efficiency and profit are gradually eroding desire for risk, creativity and emotional depth, this message is an important one to hold onto. 
But it is not just Van Gogh’s work which makes this such an incredible story. After all, we have heard Van Gogh’s story before, in a myriad of ways. What was so special to me about this story is that it was Johanna Van Gogh who truly consolidated the importance of his work, who recognised that brilliance and brought it to the world. She was the one who understood why his work was important, that it was the story behind the artist that made his work so extraordinary, that art should be about capturing emotion, about capturing a story. 

She also understood why his art was important for the socialist movement, why capturing the sentiment of workers through painting could have such extraordinary revolutionary consequences.  She was dismissed as a sentimental woman, as hysterical, as uneducated and uncultured, in the typical patriarchal fashion of the 19th century. But she held onto her convictions, and eventually won people over. And that was her superpower- her ability to recognise and translate to others why his work should always remain relevant to us, why it is the story behind art that truly gives it its worth. 
I wanted to see this play as an almost living painting, a piece of art that shows the world the story behind the artist’s success, showed people why it is important that her story is told, that her grief and desire and passion and guilt were represented after all these years. After all, is that not a testament to the ethos that she dedicated her whole life to, the story behind the art?

How have you been preparing for the Fringe?
ElizabethWe have had a two week rehearsal period in Cornwall for this show. Rehearsing often outside amongst the wildlife was the best setting for a show in which themes of nature are central. There were swallows nesting in the bathroom and they hatched halfway through our rehearsal period! 

What do you want an audience to take away from seeing the show?
Manon: For me, this show is about the importance of capturing a story through art, about why emotion, passion and risk taking are still an important part of the creative process. As arts council funding is being eroded, and emphasis is beginning to focus on profitability and easy consumption in theatre, emphasis on this form of creativity is beginning to erode. I want people to come out of this show feeling inspired, to have a renewed appreciation for why making and consuming dramatic, emotional and potentially controversial art is still important. Van Gogh was hated at the time, and yet his art still contains one of the most important messages for the modern world: we need to keep creating, keep seeing beauty in things and sharing that love and beauty with the rest of the world.

Can you describe the show in 3 words?
Manon: Passion, Duty, Desire. 
Elizabeth: From the heart.

Four Cut Sunflowers premiers at the Haldane Theatre, theSpace @ Surgeons’ Hall, 14th-26th August (not 20th), 20:40. Tickets are available from

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