Published in the Globe and Mail, November 2, 2018
by Marianne Ackerman
In the days leading up to the premiere of his new play A Very Very Very Dark Matter at London’s Bridge Theatre, Martin McDonagh kept out of sight. No interviews or personal appearances. The official word was he’d decided to “let the play speak for itself.” After a slew of savage and very funny hit plays, the writer-director of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri publicly declared a strong preference for film over theatre, which he said can never be as edgy in the way he wants it to be.
As it turns out, disdain for the medium, followed by authorial silence, now looks like a very very very shrewd strategy. Following the opening last month, top London theatre critics tied themselves in knots trying to explain why a play with cardboard characters, haphazard structure and gleefully foul-mouthed dialogue (sometimes delivered by children) may be a work of genius, and what it all means.
At 85 minutes with no intermission, A Very Very Very Dark Matter is jokey, spooky, wobbly, bloody, downright mystifying. But then, the main character is Hans Christian Andersen, the 19th-century children’s lit author whose greatest hits include The Emperor’s New Clothes.
Eschewing his own immense talent for plot and character, McDonagh takes aim at the creative imagination, the whole Western-civ package of mainly male artistic celebrity, which he depicts as rooted in falseness and exploitation, bound to end in violence. The settings are Andersen’s Copenhagen attic and, later, Charles Dickens’s London dining room, where they meet. The two literary icons are presented as, respectively, a cruel bumbler and a grouchy, washed-up womanizer. They’ve farmed out the labour of penning their popular books to a pair of Congolese pygmies (sisters) kept in captivity. Andersen’s ghost writer Mbute Masakele (who he re-names Marjory) is locked in a three-foot cage suspended pendulum style from the attic rafters. Dickens’s scribe has recently died, hence he’s stalled on the ending of his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Says Andersen, “I change the bits I don’t like and then erase all the rest from history. I’m more like a German theatre director.” Among the bits they argue over are titles: Marjory wanted The Little Black Mermaid. Dickens would have preferred something like Pretty Big Expectations, but caved.
While Andersen overstays his welcome in London, the attic is invaded by two Belgium time-travelling hit men, Barry and Dirk, who Marjory somehow knows will take part in the slaughter of 10 million Congolese, under instructions from Belgium’s King Leopold II – if she doesn’t stop them. Jim Broadbent as Andersen and Phil Daniels as Dickens are hilarious, although the laughs, even out of their own mouths, are often at their expense. Women are the serious centre; Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles as Marjory and Elizabeth Berrington as Dickens’s long-suffering wife, Catherine, come off as bitterly wise next to the buffoonery of the men. Rapid dialogue is full of American idioms and invented slang, rendered as a rain of exclamation marks on the page.
Leaving a matinee performance after joining in polite applause, I wandered out into an unseasonably mild fall afternoon with the queasy feeling that some very big talents were about to suffer an expensive hit to their noble ambitions. Launched last October by Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr, who over a decade at The National tripled the budget, produced many hits and won a slew of awards, The Bridge is London’s first big new playhouse in decades, and the first commercial venture of its size outside the West End.
Although London stages are enjoying boom times – sales are up 24 per cent since 2000 and ticket prices are high – venues offering challenging work have devised a myriad of clever pricing schemes as insulation against the fickle rich. I heard talk of an app that offers budget-conscious subscribers cut-rate prices on unsold seats, but they have to promise to dress nicely, stay to the end and applaud. Apparently spies keep watch.
Reading through the day-after reviews, I found rampant bet hedging, or call it vertiginous empathy. Or, maybe critics rushing into print were sincerely afraid of missing out on this century’s first Waiting for Godot.
With 50-plus years as a critic under his belt, The Guardian’s Michael Billington dared opine. “Part of McDonagh’s mission, I suspect, is to dismantle the great-man theory of literary history … The link between literary plagiarism and genocidal oppression is a risky one but you see what McDonagh is driving at … He camouflages his argument with a wild inventiveness. … It’s a play you will either like or loathe. For me, it confirms that McDonagh is a genuine original with a talent to disturb.”
Time Out critic Andrzej Lukowski predicted some would find it gratuitously offensive and/or racist, but thought the play was sincere about the evils of colonialism. “I’d be lying if I said all this was crystal clear: the play is indulgent, opaque and messy, and risks coming across as more offensive than it probably is. … It’s difficult to imagine that a playwright of less standing than McDonagh would possibly be able to get something as weird as this off the ground in a theatre the size of The Bridge.”
Whether McDonagh’s latest rip can pack a three-month run at The Bridge is anybody’s guess. But I won’t hesitate to predict the freshly published text could flourish in smaller, dustier, fringier venues, where actors of far less range than this esteemed crew would have a ball with lines such as, “She’s very self assured for a midget who’s about to be executed” and “Well, it’s just makeuppy, isn’t it? It’s just what I do, I makey-uppy things.” Unless, of course, the London public decides the Emperor’s new clothes are just dandy, in which case the rights will be locked up for ages.