Writer: Martin McDonagh
Director: Matthew Dunster
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
It should have been so good, a huge coup announced a year ago, not long after the new Bridge Theatre was opened to prioritise new writing, the world premiere of a Martin McDonagh play about Hans Christian Andersen, two gothic storytellers combined in one oddly hilarious package. And McDonagh’s star is riding so high, an Oscar-winning film, West End and Broadway transfers, so how can A Very Very Very Dark Matter be so terrible?
On the basis of finding a small skeleton in a box in Andersen’s house after his death, A Very Very Very Dark Matter is McDonagh’s fever dream origins-story in which the famous Danish writer kept a black pygmy woman from the future in a cupboard for 16-years having cut off one of her legs. There she became the true author of Andersen’s stories. Marjory is from the Congo in the 1870s where it has been violently subdued by the Belgian army, so she returns to the past to stop it from happening, pursued by two terminator-like soldiers who try to stop her from stopping it.
If the plot alone bewilders you then the rest of the show makes even less sense. It is almost impossible to believe that the same McDonagh who wrote the wonderful In Bruges, the comical Lieutenant of Inishmore so gloriously revived this year, and the exceptional Hangmen also wrote this incoherent and frustrating nonsense. The whole concept of this show defies logic and even stretches the imagination, what on earth did Andersen have to do with the Congo when the narrator (Tom Waits) tells us he died 10-years before the events Marjory experienced?
McDonagh likes to play with boundaries and often successfully treads the line between unacceptable and shocking, getting away with it because his stories have a cartoon-like element where elaborate and silly things – like cat loving terrorists and racist actor dwarves – can exist while just stopping shy of the truly offensive. But the difference is A Very Very Very Dark Matterhammers together two entirely separate stories without being very funny at all.
There is arguably one potentially funny play here about the time Hans Christian Andersen went to stay with Charles Dickens, and an entirely separate piece about massacre in the Congo but quite why we need them both together, how Andersen is supposed to have met Marjory, trapped her in a box and, with apparently no physical strength or obvious menace, kept her prisoner for 16 years is never explained – the same Marjory who apparently killed two soldiers but not her current jailer.
The play may have something to say about the voiceless women in literature and particularly the ease with which we gloss over the suffering of non-white communities in history, but there were better ways to say it than this. While there is no doubting his imagination, McDonagh’s writing is also quite lazy, reverting to plenty of swear words and casual racism to get laughs. It has always been a feature of his work but is usually so well integrated that it becomes a statement about the individual character, yet here as Andersen makes snide comments about the Belgians, Chinese, Italians and of course the English it sits far more awkwardly, and do we really need any more Irish potato famine jokes?
Jim Broadbent’s childlike Andersen is clearly a nasty, bigoted man but you never quite believe he is capable of any of the dark things he is supposed to have done before the play begins. Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles makes the most of her stage debut as Marjory, a cynical and jaded servant but enough fight to make the finale work (however unconvincing it is as a concept. And thank goodness for Phil Daniels whose crass and angry Charles Dickens, along with equally bitter wife Catherine (Elizabeth Berrington), kick the whole thing up a gear in two very good scenes that showcase what this play could have been.
A Very Very Very Dark Matter seems to be dividing audiences but is a show that will make you very very angry, not just because it should have been so much better than this convoluted mess, but mostly because in a year of operation the Bridge Theatre has commissioned little more than mediocre new work by white men and then failed to hone it properly before charging audiences to see it. McDonagh has been given a huge platform for a play that doesn’t deserve it whereas plenty of writers with important or entertaining things to say are struggling to be heard anywhere. Now that is a very very dark matter indeed.
Runs Until: 6 January 2019 | Image: Manuel Harlan