Monday, 26 November 2018

A Very Very Very Dark Matter - Bridge Theatre

The critical stance on Martin McDonagh’s latest play at The Bridge has been difficult to avoid. Besides a couple of four-star reviews, there were an abundance stamped around the two-star mark. Though I prefer not to read any criticism ahead of seeing a production, particularly if I’m going specifically to review, the consensus that A Very Very Very Dark Matter is a convoluted, bizarre and often offensive piece of theatre has bubbled up and disrupted the surface in a way that’s impossible to ignore. 

Given the premise of the play, you enter the theatre hoping that Martin McDonagh is making a clever but clear critique on the oppression of black voices in the literary cannon and the brutality of colonialism, but I - and countless others, it seems - left struggling to understand how a case was even made for this standpoint. 

A Very Very Very Dark Matter is largely set in prolific 19th-century writer Hans Christian Andersen’s attic, in which he has enslaved a pygmy woman from the Congo, Marjory, who, as it transpires, is the true author of all his classics.

One thing that is (positively) striking about this production is the set and sound design. Though the stage is plunged in darkness on entrance, you get a glimpse of a large object swinging in the darkness, a countdown to what is to come. As the booming narrator and accompanying music echo through the space and Hans Christian Andersen’s attic is revealed in intricate and flourishing detail, the combination is chillingly and cinematically atmospheric.

While the crass humour is designed to cut across this rich fairy tale set-up and ought to pose a sharp contrast to the modern dialect and satire, it instead falls flat in comparison and is often oddly muddled. In fact, McDonagh seems to be playing a game of how-many-historical-and-literary-gags-can-I-stuff-into-an-80-minute-play. 

Though McDonagh draws on the fairy tale trope throughout, extending this parallel beyond the set and sound, it simply carries further boastful inferences - another sideways wink to his ‘clever’ reimagining - rather than serving any real purpose.

With the formalities of plot, tone and set-up aside, onto the Very Very Very large issue: why is a 21st century white British male writing a black pygmy woman into a 3-foot box in Hans Christian Andersen’s attic? There are infinite ways to convey the horrific realities of our colonial past, without making such poor and distasteful creative decisions. And it doesn’t stop there; the ‘satirical fairy tale’ is littered with cheap racist and xenophobic gags, and takes a bizarre time-travelling and zombie-led tangent to sweep in the atrocities that took place in the Congo later that century.

McDonagh gives one final nod to the fairy tale trope with a minor statement at the end - presumably his moral conclusion – about how King Leopold II’s statue stands proudly in Belgium with no mention of the millions of Congolese deaths for which he was responsible. But this is just moments before one final moment of ridicule, as Marjory bursts out of Andersen’s attic with a machine gun slung across her back and two hand guns in her pockets, destined to catch a bus from Copenhagen to the Congo to reverse the history that hasn’t yet happened. 

In fact, rather than a clever attack on colonialism that exposes and explores the real issues at hand, McDonagh’s convoluted attempt instead seems to exploit the subject matter for his own literary and theatrical gain.

* I was gifted this ticket, but all words and opinions are my own.

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