Bridge Theatre, London – until 9 January 2019
Martin McDonagh has made his impatience with theatre clear in the past – the constraints of the medium, its conventions and expectations. Apart from Sam Mendes, few recent figures have made such a triumphant transition to Hollywood. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was nominated for seven Oscars earlier this year, and won one. So what brings him back to the stage again? Despite his frustrations, theatre still seems to a medium he can use to confront, provoke and assail his audience and critics. A Very Very Very Dark Matter is perhaps the least complete of his works for the stage, but its fierce anger and gleeful South Park-style offensiveness makes it unlike anything else on a stage right now, in London or anywhere else.
Even an explanation of the premise is both hilarious and offensive: Hans Christian Andersen keeps a Congolese pygmy woman, who he insists on calling Marjory, imprisoned in a cage in his attic so she can write his stories. Immediately, we’re in the realms of political metaphor and the fairy-tale-gone-wrong. McDonagh is venting uncontrolled fury at the depredations of colonialism in general, and the genocidal Belgian Congo regime of Leopold II in particular. Andersen and, later, Charles Dickens, are grotesque parodies whose flailing, self-obsessed behaviour renders the society they symbolise absurd. This element of the play is expressed through streams of sweary, gasp-inducing dialogue which has the audience unsure whether they can laugh without transgressing the limits of acceptable behaviour.
The play is short and, in truth, underdeveloped. The connection it draws between literary theft and cultural oppression is strongly stated but hard to pin down, floating somewhere in McDonagh’s fantastical rewriting of history. The top talent on display goes a long way, though, to make up for these shortcomings.
Tom Waits provides a deliciously drawling narration. Jim Broadbent plays Andersen as a beaming, dementedly self-centred child of a man, who is unashamedly brutal and cruel. He is also very funny, and much of the play resembles the Armstrong and Miller sketches about uptight Second World War pilots who talk street. A scene when Broadbent reads from ‘the King of the Spanish’, who entirely misses the point of Andersen’s ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ and does so like a very rude 10-year old, is hilarious.
His visit to Charles Dickens (who he repeatedly calls Charles Darwin) brings in Phil Daniels, as the author – or an especially foul-mouthed version. His wife and children family behave in the same vein (his young daughter exclaims “Is daddy banging the broads again, mummy?”). The scene is in fact based on a genuine visit Andersen made to Dickens, in which he stayed for five weeks despite Dickens’ hints.
This shock and awe comedy would be fairly pointless without the character of Marjory, played by Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles, making her professional debut. She is African American, small in stature, and has one leg. Her performance is a sharp reminder that people fitting her description do not generally appear on stage. The absurd lengths to which McDonagh has gone to create a role for her makes this point very clear. Marjory (not her real name) has been kidnapped from the Congo to write Andersen’s tales which he sometimes edits (The Little Black Mermaid). This being McDonagh, there is vengeance and gore: two blood stained Belgians stalk the play and, eventually, Marjory marches off, heavily armed, to sort out history.
Anna Fleische’s puppet-ridden attic provides a delightfully unpleasant setting. Matthew Dunster, who directed McDonagh’s previous play, ‘Hangmen’, presents the nasty events with sickening polish. ‘A Very Very Very Dark Matter’ is a much slighter play than ‘Hangmen’ and lacks its clarity of context. It is also outrageous, establishment-baiting and very very very funny, highly suited to the bizarre political context of the late 2010s.