Monthly Archives: February 2022

THE COLLABORATION Young Vic SE1

A VIGOROUS, HEARTSHAKING BRUSH OF OPPOSITES

  

  Two artists in a studio:   the older one pale and floppily blond,  languidly self-protective, drawling,  preaching a cool  gospel of using assistants,  silkscreening,  keeping it bland: “commenting in a neutral way –  art that wants you to ignore it”.   The younger is spike- haired,  loose-limbed, vivid.  For him painting is messy,  challenging and accussing, a noisy plunge of  terrors and colours.   They have been  put there to collaborate:   Bruno the gallery-owner who will profit from this wheeze turns up with doughnuts, which neither of them want:  a Swiss Mephistopheles they both need and resent. 

         By chance this is the second play running at the Young Vic to feature the blond mop of Andy Warhol.  In James Graham’s Best of Enemies he only makes a fleeting appearance in 1968, bleating that he wants everything to be lovely.  Now in 1984 he is older, and  his declining fame  (and Alex Newman’s amusingly smooth Bruno)  tempt him to collaborate for an exhibition with the wild-child newcomer  Jean Michel Basquiat.  Black, street-art political like an infinitely better Banksy,  Basquiat is the 23-year-old darling of New York galleristes.  Many say their victim, for the art and fashion world  in its showy, flattering hunger for smart street-wise art probably accelerated his heroin abuse: he was to die at 27.

       Its an  uneasy 80’s tale in its exploitation of youth and race: Harold Finley’s A Thousand Years of HIstory covered some of the same ground at Peckham a decade ago and I was agog to see what Anthony McCarten would make of it under Kwame Kwei-Armah’s direction.   Mc Carten after all gave us the Two Popes, another fine example of opposites.  

       Paul Bettany makes a return to the stage as a skinny, posed Warhol; Anthony Pope is the wunderkind Basquiat.  Each is perfect and complete in every move:  from Warhol’s tight folded-arms and physical unease to Basquiat’s exuberant street-dance youth.  The voices too – affected drawl versus mocking interrogation – serve a great many gorgeous lines in the lighter-toned first half.   Their artistic differences jar, as both scorn Bruno’s first persuasions:  the young man reckons that you’re no artist if you won’t paint,  the older one finds Basquiat’s chaotic symbolism noisy and muddled.   But it is when the pair are together that things heat up, comically and dramatically.   When Warhol goes into an account of his social whirl with Jerry Hall and Steve Jobs and Salvador  and Princess von Thurn und Taxis,    Basquiat’s night-before consisted of finding a dead man on his East Village doorstep.  “DId you film it?” asks the ghoulish old cynic.  No, says the decent boy from the wrong side of the tracks : he called the cops. It was an old guy with a heart attack.   On the canvases Warhol finds calm in  symmetries and quotidian packets and logos, Basquiat says “Messy is good, messy is real life!”.   But corruption by money and fame is creeping on him.   There are a few longeurs as part 1 ends, and I felt the familiar new-play fear that the epigrammatic fun of the first half would be all we got, and wondered whether it should have been a straight 80-minutes…

      Wrong.  After a rackety interval of overhead disco music,   the classic play format proves its virtue.. Three years of collaboration past, Warhol’s hair is messier and longer, Basquiat’s wilder, the studio messier  (Warhol tries to Hoover it)  and Swiss Bruno is worried about the syringe on the sofa.  It’s coming to a climax.   The younger man’s girlfriend Maya rocks in wanting money for rent and an abortion,  and the studio fridge proves full of $50 bills; offstage their friend Michael is dying, brutalized by NYPD police for doing graffiti.  Grief, affection, rage,  desperate Haitian spirituality and manic brushwork possess Basquiat.    Warhol obsessively, homoerotically just wants to film him painting shirtless (the shots jaggedly projected on the studio walls).  The men’s distinct and opposite moments of emotional disintegration shake the room.  It’s electrifying, if you let it be: maybe some won’t,  but there’s a compassionate truth in it .  The final gentleness between them , under blazing projections of their shared chaotic colours ,  should pierce even the most rebarbative heart.   Even as we hear behind them the distant sussuration of an auctioneer’s rocketing million-dollar sales ,  we are told that art is about hearts not dollars,  a sacred human magic. 

box office www.youngvic.org  to 2 April 

rating four 

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THE FOREST Hampstead Theatre NW3

AN ORDINARY TRIANGLE TWISTS INTO NIGHTMARE

  

    The French novelist-turned-playwright Florian Zeller hit the British theatre scene a few years ago with two comedies: The Lie  and The Truth,  which at the time I described as “a punch-in-the-guts, cruelly affectionate,  whip-smart ninety-minute treat”.   He played with questions about lies, belief, suspicion and pretended-belief which is itself a lie,  set in bourgeois comfortable homes where someone is cheating.    Later, again with a brilliant Christopher Hampton translation,  we saw his wrenchingly more earnest  The Mother dealing with distress and delusion,   and The Father which became a film,  terrifyingly evoking dementia.  He uses theatre brilliantly to decive:   imaginary conversations and events might be real,  real ones reimagined, sometimes repeatedly.  Still more tragic was the third of the mother-father trilogy,  The Son, but it had the very uncharacteristic weakness of being too obvious too early.  

        But always you can rely on Monsieur Zeller to mess with your head, fry your brain,  use the immediacy of theatre to its best.  I recount all this (reviews are far below on this site) because this is  a world premiere in Britain,  because he loves our theatre world and it loves him back. And  because while it  is not his strongest work  – watchable, estimable but not the best – it is extra fascinatingly interesting if you know the rest.   

      . For it picks up once again the question of  adulterous lies,  but combines it with his other more troubling theme of mental danger and confusion.  Once again it’s a bourgeois family – the handsome surgeon, distressed for his daughter who has found her partner cheating but comfortably insisting that these things are forgivable, and everything will go “back to normal” (that yearning phrase recurs throughout the elegantly designed nightmare that lies ahead for him) .  The point is that he – played by Toby Stephens and Paul McGann, who we reckon are the same person – is also cheating. 

       Anna Fleischle’s design splits the stage sideways and vertically so we see him with his mistress, an increasingly demanding and angrily distressed Angel Coulby,   and sometimes in a side room where he is either anxiously confiding in male friends, rebuking his daughter’s partner,  or ever more alarmingly encountering a superb Finbar Lynch in sinister lighting.  The latter is a black-clad, gleamingly whitely bald interrogator-therapist who is quite likely,   who knows, yet another manifestation of the hero himself, since we all have an invisible therapist to beat ourselves up with at times .  

        In short sharp scenes things get worse and worse.  The title comes from the fairytale of the knight who charges into a forest after a white stag and finds himself hopelessly lost and unable to get – that phrase again – back to normal.   Meanwhile Gina McKee, who was so brilliant in The Mother, has a rather less interesting role as his wronged wife, but nonetheless gives it a real, weird punch:  she creates an air of actually knowing his secret all the time without acknowledgement.   I think many wives of cheaters will recognize her: it’s very subtle. 

      Everything gets stranger,  there’s a Banquo moment, the flat fills with flowers for no reason, a portrait on the wall changes and there is a terrible death which may be real or may be imagined.  A final scene in the top room means that  I should assure you that no white stags were harmed in the making of this play.  It’s 85 minutes: director Jonathan Kent skilfully keeps it on the move and the cast achieve just the necessary dislocation – sometimes conversing from different rooms and time-scales.  I’d go again.  But then, as I admitted, I am a Zellerite.   He’s like a more humane early Stoppard. 

BOX OFFICE  hampsteadtheatre.com to 12 March 

rating four 

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SPIKE Watermill Theatre, Nr Newbury

HOMAGE TO A HEALING CHAOS

      If  – like Prince Charles – you grew up with the Goons in the background (“Ying Tong! Bluebottle! He’s fallen in da water!” etc) this will ring bells.  So will passing references to more staid shows which it eclipsed, like “Variety Bandbox” , “Ray’s a Laugh”, and the radio-ventriloquism of Educating Archie.    If ,like me, you actually started work in radio twenty years after all that,  you will still melt with nostalgia at Katie Lias’ artful set of old tape spools and microphones,  and at Margaret Cabourn-Smith’s proudly deadpan demonstration of how to do radio sound effects with a tableful of junk.   But no need for any of this:  all you need is an appreciation of the vital forces of comedy and its eternal war with respectable statis.

     For Spike Milligan, our hero, was a force of disruptive fun, joy and disrespect compared to whom our calculatedly Insta-friendly “edgy” moderns are toddlers. He had been on the WW2 front line: the explosions at the end of every sketch (often connected with the stomach of Harry Secombe as  Major Seagoon) are dramatically reflected, in Paul Hart’s deft direction, by sudden trench flashbacks. And, later, by eruptions of Spike’s PTSD.   As a brief funny  “The Critics” scene puts it at one point with arch intellectualism, the show is  “shellshock on radio”.  We also glancingly learn that the first producer Dennis Main Wilson had been among the first on the Normandy Beaches, and his successor Peter Eton was at Dunkirk.

        So in a pleasing way, it is a kind of sequel the the last play by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman. The Wipers Times , about the unofficial rude newspaper by soldiers in the trenches  (review, https://theatrecat.com/?s=wipers+times+r).  Spike Milligan, who not only performed but wrote these Goons Shows for about half what his more famous co-stars Sellers and Secombe were paid,  drew much of his comedy not ,as the parody critics croon,  from Ionesco and the Modernists  but  from the more solid and more awful absurdism of war itself. There are parodies of the officer-class,  evocations of senseless chaos,  lavatory humour,  and hilarity at pomposity whether of BBC executives ( corporately portrayed with fine stiffness by Robert Mountford)   or of public coverage- “Richard Dinglebury on the Gold Microphone of State”.   

        Comedy  was for Spike, bipolar and difficult and clever,  both an outlet and a terrifying chore: here are sequences of desperate, tap-dance rhythm typing as his home life and marriage got ever more strained,  his sense of inferiority and victimhood rose,  and his mind wandered, to the extent of once in his dressing-gown deciding to kill Peter Sellers for making it all so difficult.   “Do not disturbed. Disturbed enough already” said the sign on Spike’s door,  and once, sadly, he says  that in the army at least you could be funny for fun – no pressure. 

        John Dagliesh,  looking very like a mid-period Jonathan Miller,  is superb as Spike, inhabiting both the miseries and the fun with sly, audience-aware glances and drop-dead gags;  George Kemp is fine as the chilly oddball Sellers;  but the relationship which warms the play is between Dagliesh’s Spike and Jeremy Lloyd’s Harry Secombe, the Welsh crooner-comic with the infuriating giggle ever who is shown as the closest friend, properly caring about Spike both in the pub (the backdrops are Spike-style doodles) and in the nervous crisis of the second act which put him in hospital.   

    I can’t say it’s a perfect play in form,  though undoubtedly is a perfect post-pandemic pickup lark with which to spend two hours.  But what raised it for me is those moments of warmth,  a sense of tribute and of the rarely acknowledged fact that even great clowns and great stars need a bit of loving friendship.    As it happens, I was at the same table, as Midweek host,  on the now-famed occasion when a much younger Hislop had to interview the older Spike, and spilt his water so that his notes and questions dissolved. 

         And I remember not only Ian’s brief horror but the slow, spreading smile of mischief on the great comedian’s face at this disaster.  Some comics would have taken the chance to rot up their young interviewer, but he didn’t.  The warmth of the man was as real as his eccentricity and depressions, and he behaved like a proper and kindly gent.   So I liked this tribute to him, very much.  

box office  watermill.org.uk  to 5 march

rating four

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