Writer: Anthony McCarten
Director: Kwame Kwei-Armah
Paul Bettany looks a scream in this new play about Andy Warhol’s three-year collaboration with graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. With the signature silver wig and the whiny, affected accent, Bettany gets the iconic American artist down to a tee. He’s joined on stage by Jeremy Pope who gives Basquiat a youthful insouciance and the pair enliven an otherwise old-fashioned talky play.
It begins when Warhol’s fame is the on the wane. His work has become repetitive, and he churns out silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell Soup tins. He hasn’t picked up a paintbrush for decades. Basquiat is on his way up and his ‘angry’ paintings of crowns and skulls sell for nearly as much as Warhol’s work. Art dealer Brono Bischofberger suggests that the two artists work together on a series of paintings. It would revive Warhol’s career and validate the work of Basquiat. Both artists would benefit.
After two quick scenes, Anthony McCarten’s drama is basically a two-act play with Act One showing the artists working on their first collaboration – the logo of General Motors – and Act Two, set three years later, portraying them working on the last piece for their joint exhibition. There’s little action; instead we watch them discuss the point of art in a postmodern world.
Some of the intellectual ground is familiar. Warhol talks of surfaces and says that the best we can hope for art now is that it gives someone a soft hit like passing a celebrity on the street. His jaded attitude may just be a defence and Bettany gives the artist a sense of vulnerability that is concealed behind his glasses and fey awkwardness. Despite his gossip about Yoko Ono, Lou Reed and Robert Mapplethorpe, Bettany’s Warhol strikes a lonely figure. Even his sexual desire for Basquiat seems an emotion destined for further alienation than for connection.
Unlike Warhol, Pope’s Basquiat has faith in art and yet when pushed Basquiat’s theories are less formed and more instinctive. It’s a blind faith and he really believes that art can save the world. He ‘s like an old Romantic trusting in the healing powers of beauty, and is keen to perpetuate the myth that he comes from humble origins and completely ignores Warhol’s suggestion that these origins are more brownstones than the streets.
Pope portrays Basquiat with a tragic quality long before we see the evidence of drugs. At times he’s full of life and at others as blank as one of his new canvases. He’s lost in the new world of money and buys champagne and caviar and yet at the same time he wants to rise above it. Pope does well with these contradictions and it’s not hard to believe Basquiat’s claim that everyone he meets wants to look after him.
But Basquiat’s energy is sapped and Warhol’s swirling social life is made illusory by the static staging. When entering the auditorium hiphop classics are pounding through the speakers but when the play starts the action is limited to the artists’ studios rather than the nightclubs and parties that also featured in their lives. Director Kwame Kwei-Armah ensures that every word is heard and absorbed – and the script is often very funny – but the conversations are often too isolated from the time period and from New York itself. This could be Wordsworth and Coleridge or Shelley and Keats, especially in the first half. When, in the second, the outside world does venture more inside the artists’ cocoons, it is not entirely convincing.
But there is still much to admire in this play of ideas. Warhol and Basquiat’s joint exhibition was publicised as a boxing match and in The Collaboration the performances of Bettany and Pope are knockout.
Runs until 2 April 2022