There’s a buzz about the Young Vic these days, a sense that this is a theatre hitting its stride after a relatively slow start to Kwame Kwei-Armah’s stint as artistic director.
Cush Jumbo’s excellent Hamlet was followed by the political razzledazzle of Best of Enemies, and now we have The Collaboration, which manages to top them both.
In this instance, the buzz is helped by a warm-up act: a DJ greets audience members as they pass prints of Campbell’s Soup en route to their seats. There is no hushed reverence for the stage here, rather a party atmosphere that lasts until the lights go down.
Even then, there’s an energy that crackles throughout this production, capturing the mania of the 1980s art scene, where wealth and squalor walked hand in hand, where the party never stopped, and in which the concept of value had all but broken down.
The play takes as its starting point the unlikely collaboration between the ageing Andy Warhol (Paul Bettany) and the young Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeremy Pope), the former past his prime, having given up painting some 25 years earlier, while the latter was the new hotness on the art scene.
The two men seem to share little beyond their celebrity and their selling prices, and Anthony McCarten’s largely imagined play leans heavily into this narrative of opposites. Warhol is meticulous and emotionally distant, a germaphobe whose artistic vision is to reflect the nothingness he sees around him. Basquiat, on the other hand, is chaotic and impulsive, painting with abandon, churning out new works in a matter of hours, his time as a graffiti artist teaching him to work quickly, lest he get a kicking from the NYPD.
Their burgeoning relationship is touching but this isn’t just a mawkish odd-couple drama: the real meat lies in what they represent. One thinks art should be passive, the other a way of changing the world; one of the best lines is Basquiat’s summation of Warhol’s work, which he suggests robs brands like Campbell’s of their power through sheer repetition: “You kill soup”. One has the relative security of being white and middle class, while the other has to contend with being a young black man, although, as Warhol points out, Basquiat’s father was an accountant and Warhol is the one who got shot.
Plays like this live or die on the central performances and the chemistry between the two actors is a joy. Bettany, arriving on a cloud of controversy over the publication of his messages to Johnny Depp, in which he suggested they drown Amber Heard in a swimming pool to check if she’s a witch, has a natural flair for comedy, although his Warhol can feel like ‘a bit’ rather than a serious take on the artist.
It’s Pope who shines brightest. His Basquiat is the emotional heart of the piece, an unpredictable tangle of emotions, and his portrayal veers from hilarious to heartbreaking. He even does a decent take on a Basquiat painting live on stage.
London theatre is bouncing back strongly after the misery of the pandemic and The Collaboration is yet another must-see production.