Martin McDonagh, A Very Very Very Dark Matter (Br/dge Theatre, directed byMatthew Dunster)
If you’ve seen the same author’s In Bruges, you know what to expect: humour of the blackest hue, a claustrophobic central relationship and lots of swearing. And Belgium.
Except, as a typically growly Tom Waits tells us, this is Denmark and this is the attic of Hans Christian Andersen, the well-loved Danish fairy tale writer, loved by all — save Charles Dickens, with whom he stayed for five long weeks. Andersen is vain, conceited, self-centred and a fraud. It turns out he gets all his ideas and dialogue and description from Marjory, a one-footed, Congolese Pygmy he keeps imprisoned in a three foot by three foot by three foot box.
Yes, that is racist, and sounds like a parody of the politically correct character. But Andersen reserves spite for all nationalities, including the English, the Spanish, the Irish, the Germans, the Israelis, the gypsies and the Belgians.
This last is key, as Marjorie (not her real name — Andersen can’t pronounce that) is a survivor of the Congolese genocide at the hands of the Belgians, specifically at the behest of King Leopold. As two (literally) bloody Belgian soldiers tell us, Belgium wanted bicycles and an African colony, and bicycles need rubber tyres; rubber could be got from Congo and the Belgians needed to encouragé les brûtes. It’s out of this context that Heart of Darkness came.
Of course, this all happened in the 1880s and Andersen died in 1875… so there’s a timey wimey aspect to it. I suspect a subset of the audience and the critics don’t get this, even if A Christmas Carol is invoked and Marjorie labels herself as Tiny Tim. To be fair, the time travel is hand waving by McDonagh and the mechanism is hardly explained. 1850s and 1860s Denmark is not the only place she has visited.
Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles is astonishing as Marjorie in her debut — I’m assuming she actually has two legs —and holds the stage, even if she comes across as creepy at times. Jim Broadbent is channelling the comic genius he showed in the National Theatre of Brent, the dim witted mooncalf, but getting increasingly unlovable as the play progresses. For that matter, Phil Daniels, as scene stealing Charles Dickens, hardly makes that writer adorable. But at least we can understand the nasty side of Marjorie.
The play mostly zips along for just short of ninety minutes, without interval, although a few scene changes are necessarily too long. It is very funny and very very very dark. And yet I’m not sure that McDonagh is quite in control — a number of characters are introduced and dropped, some of the justification is not spelled out. I could imagine the same play in the hands of a mid-seventies Tom Stoppard, except he would not have had the swearing to the same degree.
We are made to feel some of the horrors of colonial exploitation, just as we feel Andersen’s exploitation of Marjorie, but we need to feel it more. We have a reference to the Irish potato famine and Dickens is clearly silent over British imperial atrocities. Even if Tom Waits promises us a happy ending, I don’t think we can have one. There are still statues of King Leopold in Belgium and they are not covered in blood? Must Leopold fall?