No getting away from it, ‘The Collaboration’ is fanfic. It’s a witty, stirring and slightly cringey drama in which playwright and two-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter Antony McCarten imagines all the cool and profound things that Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat said to each other when they collaborated IRL together during the ’80s.
Which is fair enough: it’s a play *about* Warhol and Basquiat that uses the fact of their time together as a pretext to explore each man’s undoubtedly fascinating soul. The trouble is, they’re both so massively iconic as pop-cultural figures that it’s difficult to write them as serious characters without it seeming rather gauche, no matter how smart the dialogue. But as sheer entertainment, Kwame Kwei-Armah’s production goes all out, from Anna Fleischle’s cool loft-apartment sets and Duncan McLean’s evocative projections, to a banging soundtrack that runs from Bronski Beat to Miles Davis and actual live DJing from Xana.
There are also a couple of titanic lead performances. In a play with only four roles, two of them minor, a huge amount rests on the leads. And Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope really, really deliver. Best known for playing posh android Vision in the MCU films, Bettany is a strange and riveting Warhol. Simultaneously sincere and affected, he’s the more loquacious of the two artists, and seems honest to a fault, answering any question put to him at enormous, apparently entirely truthful length. But Warhol holds entrenched views on life and art that bewilder Basquiat, his lengthy explanations for his work – at this stage in his life, fading in popularity – hover somewhere between utter nonsense and biblical profundity. He’s desperately insecure, but also desperately self-aware, freaking Basquiat out with his lengthy screeds on the commodification of art. He’s also funny and likeable… until he picks up a video camera, and something changes: a detachment and a menace creep in, the vulnerability fades. Yes, it’s McCarten’s fantasy Warhol, ready to discuss his grand theories about art and life at the drop of a hat. But he’s a fascinating creation.
Anyone looks relatively normal next to Andy Warhol, but there’s plenty of room for Pope to stretch his wings as Basquiat. At first, a half-bored street punk manipulated into the collaboration by the pair’s art dealer Bruno (Alec Newman), Pope’s Basquiat begins the play with dull eyes, a high, almost Michael Jackson-like voice, and a sort of sullen incredulity at the fact Warhol hasn’t made a painting for 23 years. But he soon blooms, coming alive when he’s painting and shows a desperately vulnerable side when Warhol seizes his camera and starts merciless interrogating him about his life. ‘Who are your influences?’ the older man asks, again and again, with savant-ish menace.
The second half of the play takes place three years later. Warhol is pretty much still Warhol, albeit with his love of painting rekindled. But as the duo’s collaboration nears its end, Basquiat is going off the rails. Driven to knock out $60,000 masterpieces on a daily basis, he’s wealthy beyond his comprehension, worryingly paranoid and superstitious, and dicing with the smack habit that would soon kill him. He is not all there compared to the smart, nervy kid of the first act. But there is a profundity to his trauma, and a remarkable dancer’s grace to the way he skips about the studio.
It is, as I say, terrific entertainment. But there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s wildly contrived, an opportunity for McCarten’s idealised versions of Warhol and Basquiat to launch into big, soul-baring, zinger-heavy explanations of their lives, art and general philosophy. It is fanfic, even at one point bordering on slash fiction, and pretty difficult to take entirely seriously.
‘Best of Enemies’, the previous Young Vic main house production, was a superb example of a show based on real figures from recent US history: it mixed the actual real-life words of its protagonists Gore Vidal and Willam F Buckley Jr with a wilder, artier look at the febrile late ’60s America around them. ‘The Collaboration’ is just not in the same league: brilliantly acted, and indubitably well-researched, but ultimately putting words into its protagonists’ mouths in an effort to serve as a condensed joint biography. It’s fantasy Andy Warhol chatting to fantasy Jean-Michel Basquiat, in a fun fanboy showdown that strains credulity.