Jim Broadbent as Hans and Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles as Marjory in A Very Very Very Dark Matter. Photograph: Manuel Harlan
A Very Very Very Dark Matter by Martin McDonagh – Bridge Theatre, London
Martin McDonagh has made his impatience with theatre clear in the past, chafing at the constraints of the medium, its conventions and its expectations. Apart from Sam Mendes, few recent figures have made such a triumphant transition from the British stage to Hollywood. ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ was nominated for seven Oscars earlier this year, winning one. So what brings him back to the stage? Despite his frustrations, theatre still seems to be the medium he needs to confront, provoke and assail his audience and critics. ‘A Very Very Very Dark Matter’ is perhaps the least complete of his plays, 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 explain of the premise is both hilarious and offensive: Hans Christian Andersen keep 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 of political metaphor and of the fairy-tale-gone-wrong. McDonagh is venting uncontrolled fury at the depredations of 19th century colonialism in general, and the genocidal Belgian Congo regime of Leopold II in particular. Hans Christian Andersen and, later, Charles Dickens, are written as grotesque parodies whose flailing, self-obsessed, child-like behaviour renders the society they symbolize absurd. This aspect 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 within McDonagh’s fantastical rewriting of history. The acting talent on display goes a long way, though, to make up for these shortcomings. Tom Waits provides a deliciously drawling narration, sadly not in person. Jim Broadbent plays Andersen as a beaming, dementedly self-centred child of a man, unashamedly brutal and cruel. He is also very funny, and much of the play resembles Armstrong and Miller’s sketches about uptight Second World War pilots who talk in incongruous street language. A scene when Broadbent reads a letter 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 an especially foul-mouthed version of the author, to great comic effect. His wife and children family behave in the same vein (his young daughter, for example, 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’ increasingly desperate 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 even clearer. Marjory (not her real name) has been kidnapped from the Congo to write Andersen’s tales, which he occasionally edits for European consumption (notably ‘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 rewrite history back home.
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 its predecessor and lacks the clarity and precision of the context that gave ‘Hangmen’ extra weight. It is, nevertheless, outrageous, establishment-baiting and very very very funny, and possibly the only logical response to the bizarre political context of the late 2010s.