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  to 2 April 

rating four 


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