Bridge Theatre, London – until 9 January 2019
Hans Christian Andersen, the celebrated Danish writer of children’s fairy tales, is a fraud. In his attic, caged in a 3ft by 3ft box, is a Congolese pygmy woman whose foot he’s cut off. Marjory (the name he’s given her) is the greatest writer, perhaps bar one, alive. She’s created 1002 stories most of which she knows by heart. Her latest, The Little Black Mermaid, has once again been bastardised by Hans only for him to pass it off as his own. At least, this is according to the world of Martin McDonagh’s new play, which stars Jim Broadbent and Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles.
Broadbent is excellent at conveying the prosaic, gleeful strangeness of the utterly detestable Andersen. There are unsavoury jokes about the English, the Irish, the Spanish, the Chinese, Belgians, Italians, Africa, black people, women, dwarves, people with mental health problems, gypsies, etc. But the biggest joke of all is on the successful white man: thick, untalented and selfish, his ignorance and general prickish attitude on show for us to laugh at in all its glory.
For the most part, his idiotic audacity is funny (including a good joke about German theatre directors), especially in his scenes with Charles Dickens. Hilariously played by Phil Daniels, Dickens, along with his family, is put upon by Andersen for ‘five facking weeks!’ Whilst Dickens’ novels are all too long for Andersen to bother to read, Dickens is perhaps worse: another con, a rubbish father and an adulterous husband.
Amongst this amusing conceit is some sort of plot which attempts to satirise imperialism: two Belgian Siamese twin ghosts (?!) have come back in time (?!) to seek revenge on Marjory for killing them in the future, a plan which is foiled by a Chinese haunted accordion (?!) which really contains a machine gun (?!). Makes no sense to me either, but oh well, ‘Fucking Belgians!’
Unusually for McDonagh, the play is underwritten and the plotting is in need of tightening (this time travelling subplot of the Belgian imperialists is especially lazily handled). What’s more is that, in an already swift 90 minutes, a lot of it feels extraneous. It could have been a focused, five-handed chamber piece rather than giving very good actors such as Paul Bradley and Elizabeth Berrington the thankless and ultimately superfluous roles that they have. Also frustrating is that the humour is occasionally incongruous. For example one of the play’s funniest scenes sees Dickens’ astonished bemusement at Hans’ questioning of whether he has a Marjory of his own. However, we later discover that he in fact does, and therefore must have known to what Hans was referring. The joke that Hans looked like an utter madman in the previous scene is therefore illogical.
Elsewhere, Ackles makes a blistering UK stage debut. Her performance is so assured, not only matching but often exceeding that of her captors. Anna Fleischle’s attic design (along with Chris Fisher’s illusions) is shadowy and characterful, capturing a magic and odd Christmas spirit in the play.
I stand by what I wrote about The Lieutenant of Inishmore earlier this year:
‘In an age where representation is often (rightly) at the forefront of a playwright’s work and where difficult subjects should be treated as such, it is refreshing to see a play where the writer has gone completely where they want to go’.
Once again, McDonagh achieves, even tests the boundaries, of this ethic but this latest play is in much need of some dramaturgy. As it is, A Very Very Very Dark Matter lacks the coherence and pleasing culmination of his other works. Despite the ‘upbeat ending’, this play displays none of McDonagh’s trademark pitch-black farce. The audacious situations portrayed in Leiutenant and Hangmen are superbly timed, and escalate to buoyant climaxes (audible gasps from the audience as they stay one step ahead of the characters; the roar of laughter in those final few seconds of Lieutenant) whereas here the chopping and changing of settings, incomprehensible time scales and underpowered finale are a damp squib in comparison.
In Nicholas Hytner’s Balancing Acts, he writes of a story that McDonagh told him about Shakespeare keeping a pygmy woman in a box. Shakespeare gives her a stab every time he wants a new play written, but the best plays she keeps to herself, writing them in blood on the inside of the box:
‘…the box with the world’s best play goes up in flames, so nobody ever gets to read it. Maybe Shakespeare’s relationship with the pygmy in the box is Martin’s relationship with his own imagination. Somewhere, smeared in blood on the inside, is the best play ever written’ (page 65).
A Very Very Very Dark Matter isn’t that, and it also raises questions as to how Hytner programmes shows at the Bridge. For now, back in the box!
A Very Very Very Dark Matter plays at the Bridge Theatre until 6thJanuary, 2019.Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles and Jim Broadbent. Credit: Manuel Harlan