Paul Bettany & Jeremy Pope in The Collaboration – Young Vic – review

Paul Bettany & Jeremy Pope light up this fascinating play

★★★★

Production photo of Jeremy Pope and Paul Bettany in The Collaboration at Young Vic theatre in London 2022
Jeremy Pope and Paul Bettany in The Collaboration. Photo: Marc Brenner

The Collaboration at The Young Vic is a special occasion. The two stars are Paul Bettany – Vision no less from the Marvel Universe, and the very unpleasant Duke of Argyll in A Very British Scandal – and Hollywood rising star Jeremy Pope.

The play is written by Anthony MacCarten, best known for his screenplays The Theory Of Everything, The Two Popes and Bohemian Rhapsody.

It’s about two of the great American artists of the late 20th century- Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat– who worked together on a number of paintings. As you enter the Young Vic, you see scattered examples of their work scattered throughout the building.

When you walk into the auditorium, before the play even begins, there are flashing lights and the loud beat of a DJ – Xana – live mixing music and videos from 1980s New York project onto the set. There’s more. The director is Kwame Kwei-Armah, your actual artistic director of the Young Vic. And for good measure, the set is designed by  Anna Fleischle, who triumphed just last week with The Forest at Hampstead Theatre, one of a long line of amazing productions, and now conjures up the two artists’ studios, both versions of the same white-painted brick walls, skylights and paint splattered floor, but each quite different in the details that represent the artists’ very different personalities. It is, as I said, an occasion.

In real life, when Warhol and Basquiat collaborated, the critics’ response was lukewarm, so was this collaboration of theatrical talent a similar damp squib? Quite the opposite. It’s an explosion of heat and light.

Production photo of Paul Bettany in The Collaboration at the Young Vic theatre in London 2022
Paul Bettany in The Collaboration. Photo: Marc Brenner

You can see why a play about this famous collaboration seemed like a good idea. You couldn’t get more different people. Warhol the established king of Pop Art, and Basquiat the young pretender whose neo-expressionist work went from street art to multi-million dollar sales at auction. Warhol old and in decline, Basquiat young and on the rise. Warhol the reserved germophobe who hid his heart, Basquiat, messy, prolific, spontaneous and wearing his heart on his sleeve.

They are The Odd Couple, as portrayed in the film of that name, or they could be a comedy duo like Morecambe and Wise, one that depends on a straight man and an anarchist. The conflict is the grit that creates this pearl of a story.

And what a great story. There are comparisons to be made with John Logan’s superb play Red which also features conversations about art, in that case between Mark Rothko and his young, critical assistant. Here, though, the two protagonists are shown as equals. Initially, they hate each other’s work. “So ugly’ says Warhol. ‘Old hat’ says Basquiat. So not exactly Elton John and Dua Lipa.

Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope totally inhabit their roles

Then they meet and in the first act they explore one another’s ideas of art. Warhol sees himself as taking out the feeling by repetitive reproduction so that surface becomes all that matters, deliberately turning art into a commodity. ‘Trash. Trash. But we have to celebrate something’ says Warhol, (he might possibly have said that in the second act, I’m not sure). Basquiat passionately believes that art means something and can be an instrument for change. ‘Art disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed’ he says. In this play of natural conversation, even the aphorisms sound spontaneous. There are times in the first act when you may wonder, interesting and enjoyable as the conversation is, whether it’s getting anywhere.

The second act dispels all doubt. It takes place when they have been working together for a couple of years, and starts with a splendid moment when Warhol unhappy with the standard of cleaning in Basquiat’s studio starts vacuuming. The two have got to know one another well and, while they remain very different artists, they have come to feel a kind of love for each other. And it’s heartwarming in this current era of echo chambers and cancel culture, to see two people with very different views, not shutting each other out, but listening, and talking, and eventually respecting one another.

The intimacy the artists now have means that we find out a lot more about their inner selves: Warhol opens up emotionally in ways you would never have imagined, and we learn about Basquiat’s demons too. In some ways, the collaboration has reinvigorated Warhol. There’s a wonderful moment in the first act when he first picks up a brush for the first time in 25 years and seems to marvel at its feel in his hand. He has become a kind of father figure to Basquiat who seems to be on a downward spiral of paranoia and drug addiction.

This all works so well, partly because of the strength of the dialogue, partly because of the way director Kwame Kwei-Armah drives the play towards a dramatic climax. Most of all it’s because of the acting. Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope totally inhabit the roles of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Mr Bettany looks the part with his gangly body, his nervous tics and his pale skin and white wig. When he talks with Warhol’s superficial ‘gosh, gee’ way of speaking, his controlled body language conveys that this is a way of hiding his true self, just as he hides behind a camera.

Mr Pope with hair like a crown of thorns is all bouncy and Tigger-like then suddenly switches to anger, both moods concealing a pain that can be seen in the way he physically slumps or has a watery look in his eyes.

These two outstanding performances turn this theatrical collaboration into a momentous occasion.

The Collaboration can be seen at the Young Vic until 2 April 2022.

Click here to watch this review on the One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube channel

 

Florian Zeller’s The Forest – review

Toby Stephens and Paul McGann share the honours as a man on the edge

★★★

Production photo of Toby Stephens and Gina McKee in Florian Zeller's The Forest at Hampstead Theatre in London 2022
Toby Stephens and Gina McKee in The Forest. Photo: The Other Richard

French playwright Florian Zeller’s work has become familiar to British audiences thanks to plays like The Truth, The Lie, The Height Of The Storm and the trilogy of The Mother, The Father and The Son. His new play The Forest is the first to receive its world premiere in the UK,  and comes on the back of the award-winning film of The Father with Anthony Hopkins.

So you probably know Florian Zeller’s approach to playwriting. It started as an innovative way of getting inside people’s minds. In The Father, it was a brain confused by dementia, in The Mother, a mid life crisis, in The Son a depressed teenager. He achieves this by having the characters act out their lies, self deception, false memories, fears and desires, often repeating scenes with variations of dialogue or even characters, and none of it is necessarily in a linear narrative. So it’s both exhilarating and exhausting. Throughout his plays, we are asking ourselves What is the truth? What actually happened? For which there may or may not be an answer.

As time has gone on, what was surprising and original has become a signature style. It may even be in danger of becoming a cliché- but not yet! Once again, Zeller brings alive a potentially mundane story.

In The Forest, the subject is a married hospital consultant who has been having an affair with a younger woman. As she demands that he legitimises their relationship, he is overtaken by fear about what that would do to his marriage and career (the two of which are tied together, at least in his head), not to mention guilt at betraying his wife.

From the start, we are in familiar Zeller territory. We are plunged into a confusing jigsaw of scenes in which we see the adulterer’s changing memories, fantasies and fears. The title refers to a story about a prince out hunting, who in pursuit of a stag that ultimately disappears, becomes lost in a forest.

Each of the three acts (there’s no interval by the way) begins with the same or at least a similar scene. The first scene sees Pierre, referred to in the cast of characters as Man 1, and played byToby Stephens, arriving home. His wife is clearly agitated. Their daughter’s long term boyfriend has been having an affair. Pierre talks to the girl about his indiscretion. ‘Don’t worry. Everything’ll work itself out’ he says. Pierre uses a conversation with the daughter to talk about his thoughts about a man having affair. Perhaps his memory is playing tricks because on the second occasion, the daughter isn’t there and he talks directly to his wife. This time he’s talking about their child’s reaction, indicating that he is concerned about his wife’s reaction to his own affair. The third time, the daughter barely gets a mention but the room has filled with flowers.

The no-strings affair is now tied up with his marriage and career

Then there’s scene two. A middle-aged man, referred to as Man 2 and played by Paul McGann, is in bed with a young woman. We’re not in doubt for very long that this is also Pierre. I’m guessing that, in his mind, Pierre has separated his affair from the rest of his life. In other words, he becomes a different person, a kind of alter ego. Before long, we are seeing the same or a similar scene but with Toby Stephens, just as Man 2 is Pierre in the third iteration of the opening scene. This indicates I think that the once no-strings affair is now tied up with this marriage and career.

Toby Stephens is brilliant as Man 1. His ready smile becomes a nervous grin. He leans back which at first seems relaxed but eventually looks like he’s reeling from blows. Paul McGann holds his own as Man2, showing a brittle harshness that soon collapses into panic.

Pierre’s character is complex and rounded. The other characters less so, perhaps because they’re part of his memory and imagination.

The treatment of the Girlfriend in the first bedroom scene is a case in point. When she gets out of bed and you see her partly naked before she puts on a shirt. Perfectly normal in real life of course but these days, you rarely see gratuitous nudity on stage, so we must assume there is a good reason for this. Actually, in the script, she is fully naked for the whole scene. I take it that this underlines that Pierre saw her as no more than someone he has sex with. She’s only given a name later as he starts to take her threat more seriously. Excellent as Angel Coulby’s acting is, there is little personality for her to get her teeth into.

Gina McKee makes the most of her limited role

Despite the limitations of the script, the glorious Gina McKee shows fine acting skill in managing to suggest there’s a lot going on the Wife’s head. Through a combination of strangled speech and sideways glances, she conveys a lack of passion that might have been a reason why Pierre strayed, insecurity, and the possibility that she suspects something.

Anna Fleischle‘s set is in three parts: a living room, a bedroom above the living room, and an office to the side. Each setting is invisible until the lights come up on it. The first two are built with tremendous attention to detail, and this naturalistic setting helps suggest that all that is going on in Pierre’s brain is happening while he continues to live out an everyday life.

The office is the exception. It’s pretty bare and seems to be where Pierre’s conversations with his conscience take place, or possibly interrogations by the police. He is being held in the room by a white faced man in black, chillingly played by Finbar Lynch. He looks like a character from an early horror film and wheedles Pierre with questions as he alternates between a good cop and bad cop style from a police procedural. The biggest question being ‘What happened?’

So what did happen? How did the affair end? What was the fate of the Girlfriend? Well, we can never be quite certain. There are some dramatic and shocking moments which turn this play into almost a thriller as well as a who-dun-it. Director Jonathan Kent is to be congratulated for the pace, and imbuing all that goes on with an almost Hitchcockian suspense, helped by Isobel Waller-Bridge‘s edgy sound design.

By the end, we have been given some explanations (or are they?). The problem for this and other Zeller plays is that the truth, if and when it’s discovered, may not be as interesting or exciting as the process that led to the revelation.

The Forest continues at Hampstead Theatre until 12 March 2022

Paul was given a complimentary review ticket by the producer

Click here to watch this review on the One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube channel

Maggie Smith in A German Life – review

Downton Abbey star in clever one woman play by Christopher Hampton


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Production shot of Maggie Smith in A German Life at The Bridge Theatre
Maggie Smith in A German Life at The Bridge Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks

The set comprises a small living room with an old lady sitting on a chair alone on a thrust stage talking to the audience. She never stands up. For 100 minutes we listen, I mean really listen.

The lady is Maggie Smith playing a real person called Brunhilde Pomsel who among other things was secretary to the monstrous Josef Goebbels, a top Nazi during World War Two. Apart from the light around her getting darker and focusing increasingly on this slight figure, Jonathan Kent’s production and Anna Fleischle‘s design are restrained, by which I mean, as gimmick-free as they can be.

The play is based on interviews Frau Pomsel gave in her old age. They may have been intended to show how ordinary Germans behaved during Nazi rule and pose the question, would you have behaved any differently: ‘I had no idea what was going on. Or very little. No more than most people.’ However Christopher Hampton’s play is much more nuanced.

A German Life is partly about the false memory of old age but also the deliberate rewriting of one’s history. And Hampton is brilliant at giving clues as to what the truth might be but leaving you to make your own mind up.

This woman says she was brought up to obey but she got her first job by going off to Berlin on her own initiative. She says she was quite distanced from the womanising Goebbels yet she describes with excitement how she sat next to him at a dinner in his house when his wife was away.

Production shot of Maggie smith in A German Life art the Bridge Theatre in London
Maggie Smith. Photo: Helen Maybanks

She clearly didn’t subscribe to the Nazi ideology- for example, she had nothing against jews, she had jewish friends and employers. In that sense she is only guilty of acquiescence, of not doing anything, like many ‘ordinary’ people. But she was not in an ordinary situation- and we are bound to question her claims that she was unaware of what was going on, when she was one of the people in Goebbels’ office.

So how does Maggie Smith do at conveying this? The answer is, in the main,  she plays Pomsel as a doddery old lady. Personally, I found the hesitations and repetitions grated a little but perhaps they were meant to. It’s as if Pomsel is acting, deliberately portraying herself in this way to emphasise how harmless and how naive she was. She fiddles with her glasses, puts her hands to her face. Then every so often, emotion, usually in the form of pride, causes her mask to slip: her face lights up with a vivid memory, her voice gains a steely confidence and her glasses stab the air. 

I accept that a portrayal of a normal person isn’t going to lead to a barnstorming performance but I have to say I wasn’t as overwhelmed as I expected to be. I think the problem was that this was an intimate play and, although I could hear her familiar nasal voice perfectly well at the back of the stalls, I could not see her piercing eyes and facial expressions.

This may have been a performance for people sitting in the first ten rows but it takes a great actor and a great play to hold an audience for an hour and 40 minutes.

A German Life continues at the Bridge Theatre until 11 May 2019

Watch the review of A German Life on YouTube

A Very Very Very Dark Matter starring Jim Broadbent – Bridge Theatre

Jim Broadbent excels in Martin Mcdonagh’s latest black comedy 

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Production shot of Jim Broadbent in Martin McDonagh's A Very Very Very Dark Matter at Bridge Theatre London
Jim Broadbent in Martin McDonagh’s A Very Very Very Dark Matter

A Very Very Very Dark Matter, Martin McDonagh‘s latest black comedy, is very very very dark and also very very very funny.

The lead character is the Danish fairy tale author Hans Christian Andersen is portrayed as an egocentric idiot. It is clear from the start that the true writer of his terrifying tales is a woman from the Congo whom he keeps in a cage and calls Marjory.

Click here to watch the YouTube review

Hans loves the public’s adulation but at a public reading of The Little Mermaid he can’t even pronounce the word ‘ether’. Behind the perfect avuncular face is a very unpleasant man totally lacking in self awareness. Jim Broadbent gives us a comic tour de force.

Production photo of Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles in A Very Very Very Dark Matter at Bridge Theatre London
Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles in A Very Very Very Dark Matter

Marjory is far more intelligent, erudite and sensitive than him. Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles, making her professional theatre debut, has a quiet authority that complements Jim Broadbent’s jolly but insecure sadist. She has travelled back in time in an effort to prevent a massacre in which the Belgian colonialists murdered 10 million of her people.

A macabre, bizarre, exhilarating ride

She has seen humanity’s heart of darkness (which incidentally is what Joseph Conrad called his novel about colonialists in the Congo) and it comes out in her fairy tales. Hans wishes she could provide happier endings but doesn’t interfere, except to censor her title The Little Black Mermaid which to him is an oxymoron.

At least one theme of the play is nineteenth century Europeans’ attitude to their colonies, which they saw as resources to be exploited to enrich the West. The title A Very Very Very Dark Matter may not only refer to the dark content of the play but also to dark matter itself which scientists believe makes up 80% of the universe but is invisible even though the 20% we can see can’t exist without it, in the way that the third world’s resources made the western world’s success possible.

Hans, as what he calls her ‘looky aftery’ person, represents European exploiters of the colonies. He has no concept of his cruelty, even though he has cut off one of her feet!  Even his efforts to be kind or provide an upbeat ending are naïve at best, ignorant at worst.

A Jeeves & Wooster for our times

Together Marjorie and Hans are a Jeeves and Wooster for our times. And this pair are as funny as Wodehouse’s servant and master, albeit less actual fun, given our modern awareness of the evil way in which human beings have behaved toward each other.

There are many hilarious moments, perhaps the best of which is when Hans visits Charles Dickens or Charles Darwin as he insists on calling him. He suspects that Dickens too has a ghost writer from the Congo. Andersen can’t comprehend even the most explicit insults directed at him- and the language is both modern and coarse (‘You’re shitting me’ is one of the milder phrases).

Phil Daniels, Elizabeth Berrington & Jim Broadbent in A Very Very Very Dark Matter
Phil Daniels, Elizabeth Berrington & Jim Broadbent in A Very Very Very Dark Matter

Mr and Mrs Dickens, wonderfully played by Phil Daniels and Elizabeth Berrington, exhibit a shocking but significant contempt for their children- they don’t even know their names- and there’s even time for a joke about a skeleton that is both metaphorically and literally in a cupboard.

Anna Fleischle’s set is a superb attic full of dark corners and hanging puppets, very like a scene from one of Andersen’s sinister fairy tales.

If there is a fault, it’s that A Very Very Very Dark Matter is a bit light on plot. I would have liked to have been more excited about the fate of Marjory and about whether Hans learns from his experience. Or simply a few more twists. Otherwise I can’t praise the comedy or Matthew Dunster‘s production enough

A Very Very Very Dark Matter can be seen at Bridge Theatre until 6 January 2019

Watch below for the review of A Very Very Very Dark Matter the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Some minor amendments made on 28 October 2018- paragraphs 6 and 7 swapped and subheading added.