Hans, a Congolese dwarf and a provocative fairy tale
A Very Very Very Dark Matter, Bridge Theatre, London Until Jan 6, 2019
The Bridge Theatre, London's newest state-of-the-art venue, has the world premiere of a punky fairy tale by London-Irishman Martin McDonagh as its autumn centrepiece, running through the Christmas season. There has always been a touch of the fairy tale about McDonagh, not least his meteoric rise to international theatre stardom and Tony awards with his debut play, and his Academy Award for his first short film. But apart from this, his realistic stage-work features its fair share of ogres, grannies and orphaned cripples, as well as the blunt narrative twists of the traditional fairy tale. This new work will remind fans most closely of The Pillowman, his 2003 fable play about a writer living in a police state.
A Very Very Very Dark Matter has a magpie quality: a variety of facts from Hans Christian Andersen's biography and objects found amongst his belongings after he died, have been used as the ingredients for a play. Describing the narrative feels futile because of its absurdity, but here goes: Andersen is living the life of an accomplished and feted writer in 1850s Copenhagen. Unbeknownst to his adoring fans, his stories are actually being written by a Congolese dwarf woman who he keeps in a small cage in his attic. He has chopped off her foot as a payment for some freedom from the cage, so she walks with a crutch and a prosthetic leg. Her real African name is Ogechi, but he calls her Marjory "because it sounds like an ugly English princess" and then he adds, "... is there any other kind?"
Andersen's public readings are invaded by two blood-spattered dead Belgian soldiers. They are time-travelling from the future, but not to do anything as morally admirable as prevent the Belgian slaughter of the Congolese, which has yet to happen. They have come to take preventative action against Marjory/Ogechi, as it is she who will kill them in the Congo, in revenge for their having slaughtered her husband and babies.
When Andersen leaves to visit Dickens in London, the Belgians come to the attic to try to kill Marjory/Ogechi, but she has her own sophisticated defences. She is a writer and full of guile. Events happen, not as a believable unfolding plot, but rather as an unravelling phantasmagoria of the writer's imagination.
The scenes are each tremendously well written, full of smart one-liners, and the story has its own internal logic. For all its absurdity, the play gets to the nitty gritty about the genocide in the Congo and lands a decent punch on the rotten history of European colonialism.
Jim Broadbent brilliantly plays Andersen as a dysfunctional sprite; there is a touch of the Jeremy Clarkson-esque overgrown naughty-boy about him. Phil Daniels interprets Charles Dickens (who also has a Congolese dwarf writing his work), as though the English writer has been put through a punk filter. The dialogue here is all contemporary, sprinkled with f-words and plenty of references to Dickens's extra-marital affairs. Johnetta Eula'Mae Ackles makes her professional debut in the role of Marjory/Ogechi and in a feat of sheer personal magnetism, she gives the work emotional and moral centre. Matthew Dunster directs with tremendous tonal control. Designer Anna Fleischle creates a Danish attic wonderland full of fairy-tale puppets and a poised English drawing room that satisfyingly rises up from the floor.
This is a terrific theatrical experience: dense, detailed, provocative, and always very, very, very funny. It takes a bold turn towards the sentimental with the last line, like many a fairy tale.
It makes a wonderful Christmas show, you can enjoy the laughs and razor-sharp performances, ignoring the political content if you wish. But fairy tales have always operated on the unconscious; little Marjory/Ogechi may well come to get you anyway, in your dreams. And she has a machine gun.