Bridge Theatre – until 6 January
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Martin McDonagh dives deep into the darkness of the genesis of stories and takes the audience on a mindbogglingly absurd journey into a disturbing world where literary greats have skeletons in their attics. Literally.
In McDonagh’s world, Hans Christian Anderson wasn’t the author of hauntingly dark fairy stories; that was the pygmy woman from the Congo that he kept in a wooden box in his attic. Turns out Charles Dickens had one too, the sister of Anderson’s captive, but she died before finishing The Mystery of Edwin Drood! This bizarre concept allows McDonagh and director Matthew Dunster to let rip with a freewheeling rage-filled mickey-take about the mythology of the great white male author, the atrocities of colonisation and the whitewashing of history.
Jim Broadbent is perfect casting as Anderson – a casually racist, dim misanthrope who’s only interested in people if they are lauding him. We first see Anderson at a public reading of The Little Mermaid – unable to read the trickier words and slightly surprised at the downbeat ending he has written. This version of Anderson is an egotist with no discernible talents; Broadbent keeps him buffoonish making his thoughtless cruelty even more horrifying as it’s all done with a goofy smile. He calls his captive Marjory, because her real name is too difficult, and he can’t be bothered to try – until she has a weapon. Marjory (Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles in a searing professional debut) is most definitely the brains of the outfit, so her acceptance of her captivity is puzzling until the Red Men turn up. The Red Men are Belgians travelling back in time to kill Marjory, who killed them in the Congo, and she is waiting for her future to turn up as she has a mission of vengeance. The time travelling aspect of the play is a real curveball, which makes no sense at all – but that may be the point – as Anderson himself says about the massacre of 10 million people in the Belgian Congo “It hasn’t happened yet has it? I get so confused…” Whether Tom Waites’ narration is meant to clarify or confuse is up for debate, just enjoy those croaky growling tones.
Anderson’s torturous 5 week stay with Charles Dickens (Phil Daniels) is the comic highlight of the play. Alongside the running joke of Anderson calling Dickens Darwin, the men’s linguistic difficulties are turned into a sweary pantomime. Broadbent morphs into the Spanish interpreter from Blackadder’s idiot Danish cousin, while Daniels is an explosion of frustration and bile.
Anna Fleischle’s set is a masterpiece – Anderson’s attic is a gothic nightmare with puppets hanging from the rafters – and Philip Gladwell’s lighting design creating a spooky thrill reminiscent of the chills experienced hearing dark fables as a child.
A Very Very Very Dark Matter is very definitely theatrical Marmite. I loved it – a funny and ferocious fable that will set your head spinning.