Still fresh-ish from his biggest mainstream success to date with ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’, Martin McDonagh returns in his playwright guise with what is comfortably the most WTF thing he’s ever done.
‘A Very Very Very Dark Matter’ is, I guess, a sort of lurid postcolonial parable, in which Jim Broadbent’s excitable, childish Hans Christian Andersen is revealed to have had all his iconic stories written for him by Marjory (striking young US newcomer Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles), a diminutive Congolese woman he keeps imprisoned in a box in his creepy, puppet-filled attic.
It is difficult to entirely understand why McDonagh, whose plays have hitherto been largely concerned with fictitious English and Irish characters, decided that Andersen would be the best central figure for what I am calling a savage but cryptic allegory for the means by which Western culture is built upon the back of colonial plunder. I suppose it’s because his stories so successfully became part of the Western consciousness at the height of a colonial era which they make no allusion to.
I’m aware of people who’ve seen it who felt it was gratuitously offensive and/or racist. I mean, sure, there's a lot of swearing, but I honestly think it’s sincere about the evils of colonialism and, in particular, the horrors of the Belgian-instigated genocide in the Congo. And I think McDonagh is sincere about pointing out that all this was wilfully ignored by the great Victorian storytellers who did so much to shape Western self-image. But I’d be lying if I said all this was crystal clear: the play is indulgent, opaque and messy, and risks coming across as more offensive than it probably is simply because its intent isn’t all that clear. It’s difficult to imagine that a playwright of less standing than McDonagh would possibly be able to get something as weird as this off the ground in a theatre the size of the Bridge.
All this accepted I kind of enjoyed ‘A Very Very Very Dark Matter’: in part because of the Grand Guignol lunacy of Matthew Dunster’s production and Anna Fleischle's gothic set, in part because Broadbent’s Andersen is kind of brilliant, a feckless, infantile buffoon with a hysterical sense of entitlement (considering his entire career is based upon an enormous lie) who is, nonetheless, perversely loveable in his sweetly naive complacency. Particularly funny is the sequence where he goes to stay with Phil Daniels’s baleful Charles Dickens, who clearly detests him, though Andersen is completely oblivious and blithely outstays his welcome.
Did I mention the ghost Belgians? Or the time travelling? Or the haunted accordion? Or the rambling voiceover from the actual Tom Waits? And that all this happens in just an hour and 20 minutes? ‘A Very Very Very Dark Matter’ is a car crash in many respects, but the actual production has a sort of malevolent brio that lingers long after you’ve given up trying to figure out what McDonagh was on when he wrote it.