The week in theater: The Collaboration; Good Fun | Theater

INn 1984, the Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger put a wheeze to Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat: the two painters should work together and have a joint exhibition. Warhol’s reputation was fading, Basquiat’s was growing; the attention would be enormous. Anthony McCarten’s lively new play The Collaboration uses the occasion to suggest what it is to make art – and to market it. In doing so, it explores different hearts and ideas of the US. Amid the chilly critical response to the exhibition, Basquiat was called Warhol’s “mascot”.

For the second time in months, a play at the Young Vic focuses large concerns on reimagining a real-life dialogue between male Americans. In December, James Graham’s Best of Enemies evoked political decay through the sparring of William F Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal. McCarten’s drama is more conciliatory, but the contrasts in vision and experience it evokes are tremendous – and tremendously embodied. Jeremy Pope’s Basquiat, in a glossy rust-colored suit, dreadlocks springing skywards, is restless, open, captivating: he moves sometimes with the twitch of a drug habit, once with the desperate energy of a man who has just seen a friend’s head smashed by cops, always with the compulsion of someone about to capture and light up on canvas an inner and outer landscape.

As Warhol, Paul Bettany is – well – what it says on the soup tin: laconic, wary, sealed up; circled by celebrities while his own fame wanes. Basquiat’s glorious, freewheeling imagination is threat and inspiration: a summons to put down the camera and pick up the paintbrush. Warhol’s human gifts are less evident – the final tenderness between the two men is the play’s least convincing aspect – yet Bettany does find sympathy in that skinny, scarred frame.

Plays about artists are often soft on talent and poor at reproducing the work. Not in Kwame Kwei-Armah’s vibrant production. The action takes place in a studio but is not confined to it. The outside world that supplied both artists with rhythm, terror and zip glimmers in a video of New York, behind which a DJ is perched. Anna Fleischle’s design is vital. A pillared white space; a fridge filled with hundreds of dollar notes (Basquiat did not like banks). Warhol’s Marilyns and Campbell’s Soups hang in the background: ironic commentaries. Basquiat’s frank, jostling, multifaceted canvases come to the fore and look like the event itself: a summons to consider art as essential.

It’s 52 years since the King’s Head theater – grubby, giddy, cramped and adventurous – was founded by the late Dan Crawford. Its new artistic directors, Hannah Price and the playwright Mark Ravenhill, will next year move the stage to a purpose-built theater next door. Meanwhile they have been looking back. Not to embalm but to retrieve.

Early work by Stephen Jeffreys, Tom Stoppard and Timberlake Wertenbaker has been remembered in a series of staged readings for the theater’s Covid-delayed 50th anniversary celebrations. As has Victoria Wood’s Good Fun, scooped up by Crawford after its 1980 premiere at the Crucible in Sheffield. A busy reading, put together after only one in-the-flesh rehearsal, was followed by an illuminating Q&A. Why, wondered director Annabel Leventon, one of the original cast, had the play never been revived? The panel came up with an answer: it’s a treasure trove of early sparkle – but fuzzy. Jasper Rees, Wood’s biographer, described it as “fireworks in a biscuit tin”. You can not always see the Wood for the trees.

Chloe English as Elsie, the role originally played by Victoria Wood, in Good Fun: ‘fireworks in a biscuit tin’. Photograph: Jake Bush for the Observer

Still, what fascinations in this send-up of an avant-garde show staged to rally – yes! – cystitis sufferers. Jane Wymark pronounced it typical of the community theater in which she and Wood had acted as Birmingham students. References reach back beyond the memories of many audience members: Shirley Abicair (she had a zither)! Rin Tin Tin (he was a dog)! Yet the material points forward to Wood’s marvels. The rumpty-tumpty song Handicrafts – hymning the delights of building a model of the QE2 from hearing aids – had an afterlife. As did the character originally played by Julie Walters, who, then just over 30, insisted on having varicose veins sewn into her stockings. “It was hilarious. I nearly laughed, ”says a very cherishable gloombag in Good Fun. The play ends darkly – but it takes its audience away from their shadows.

Star rating (out of five)
The Collaboration
★★★★

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