A Very Very Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre: a wild, unhinged dream
Throughout Martin McDonagh’s latest play, I kept thinking of Lanthimos’s Dogtooth. The endlessly bizarre, borderline nonsensical, and elusive narratives of both works seem to invite a plethora of unsatisfactory explanations and rationalisations. Ultimately, however, they remain powerful as idiosyncratic conversation pieces that shock, challenge, surprise and delight in equal measure.
First things first, this play is weird; like unhinged, David Lynch, off-the-chain fucking weird. A lot of the joy that comes from A Very Very Very Dark Matter comes from sheer incredulity of watching the plot play out, so if you want to go in blind, stop reading here – if not, then hold on tight, because things are going to get wild. Jim Broadbent stars as an ageing, celebrated Hans Christian Andersen (with an oddly abrasive English accent) approaching his twilight years and facing the same madness that devoured his mother. His secret to success? A Congolese Pygmy woman trapped in a three-foot by three-foot wooden box in his attic. Yes, that’s right, a Congolese Pygmy woman trapped in a three by three foot box in his attic. She writes his stories; he feeds her sausages.
Not only that, but two phantasmagorical, blood-drenched, cut-up Belgians keep appearing from the aether, proclaiming that they’re from the future, where they’re killed by said Congolese woman; they’ve come to the past to kill her and thus avoid their own deaths. And, on top of that, Andersen is conducting his own research into Charles Dickens over in London, who he believes also has a Congolese Pygmy woman in his attic, who may be the sister of the Congolese Pygmy woman he has in his attic. This all unfolds over a backdrop of contemporary Europhobia jokes, disarming meta-references, a raspy, Tarantino-esque narration from Tom Waits that’s all-too-aware of our 2018 setting, and a haunted accordion. It’s never clear how many of these strands are real, imagined, hallucinated, or dreamed.
All the more confounding is what all this actually means. Could it be a straightforward metaphor for minority groups finally being able to take control of their own stories, after being actors in colonial fantasies for so long? Is the idea, instead, that white men must forever bear the burden of the evils of the past? Is it, perhaps, a phantasmagorical questioning of the audience: for us, this fairy-tale might as well have a happy ending – McDonagh never reveals whether or not 10 million people were killed in the Congo after the conclusion of his story – they did, but did we know that? Were we, the liberal elite of London, aware of mass atrocities that wiped out a population equal to that of our city? Probably not – and if so why?
Logic and empiricism would suggest McDonagh is engaging in a discussion about storytelling – how writers are often apposite to their creations, as if they come from another person, buried in their consciousness. Continuing the ideas he developed in The Pillowman, then, this would echo Von Trier’s view of the artist/creation dichotomy as that of predator and prey. Perhaps this is a play about mental illness – one reading of the storyline would be that Andersen imagines all the strange ephemera that float around the stage, or perhaps dreams it, or perhaps thinks of it on his death bed. Part of me wonders, cynically, whether the answer is an elaborate play on The Emperor’s New Clothes – McDonagh is daring us to find meaning, brilliance perhaps, in his absolute nonsense. The clues are there in the script to support any of these readings.
Maybe it’s all of these things – or none – but in any case, A Very Very Very Dark Matter is so much fun that it’s a joy to watch from start to finish, despite the confusion. On one hand, it’s savagely funny – a lengthy dinner-time conversation between a ditzy Andersen and Dickens’s angry family provokes almost constant laughter – especially when the children join in with the profanity. At many points, it seems like McDonagh is daring us to laugh at the sheer offensiveness of the racial language he’s employing – several members of the audience expressed distaste at the content (to be honest, what were they expecting?) At points, however, it did feel to me like McDonagh was falling into slightly self-parodic potholes; there are several scenes where unfunny lines have cursing added to them, with the seeming purpose of making them funny – which doesn’t work – but for the most part, the jokes are on-point.
On the other hand, they weren’t half lying about the title – the content of this play is about as murky as it gets. There’s heavy racism, a number of shocking twists and turns, bouts of impressive, messy violence, and all manner of foul language. Around the mid-point of the story (this is a 90-minute piece without an interval), the tone takes a sharp left towards horror, and never really steps out of that mode. It’s a moody, melancholic, even gentle sort of horror, sure, but horror nonetheless. A bit like Andersen’s stories themselves, then, McDonagh isn’t afraid to step into the dark in search of the light.
Frustrating, wild, dark and funny, A Very Very Very Dark Matter orbits around its own, strange internal logic. For some, the constant bombardment of offensive content and absurdity will be a turn-off, and for others it’ll undoubtedly be a draw. I’m unsure (and very interested in) what others will have to say about this new play – but this is McDonagh, so we can almost guarantee that everyone will have something to throw into the debate; say what you like, but this is boundary-pushing theatre of the highest order.
A Very Very Very Dark Matter is at the Bridge Theatre until the 6th January, 2019.
Feature photograph: Manuel Harlan