The Collaboration review: Paul Bettany is a neurotic Andy Warhol in this fantastically enjoyable play

Anthony McCarten’s Young Vic pacy production is an exercise in giving the audience what they want

<p>Jeremy Pope and Paul Bettany in ‘The Collaboration’ </p>

Jeremy Pope and Paul Bettany in ‘The Collaboration’

“Painters are like boxers: both smear their blood on the canvas.” That’s what artists’ agent Bruno says, as he sets up the premise of this arty drama by arranging a big showdown between his two most prized painters: Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. What follows is as flashy and crowd pleasing as any rumble in the jungle, as these two famous artists bare their knuckles and souls over a collaboration in the artist’s studio.

Paul Bettany’s entertainingly neurotic, affecting performance as Warhol is a joy. It’s a compellingly detailed sketch of an artist whose image can feel almost as blandly iconic as the Marilyn Monroe screenprints he created. Warhol is recovering after being shot in the chest by a fan, hiding his nervousness behind an omnipresent camera and a brittle sense of humour. Jeremy Pope plays Basquiat as his more cerebral, thoughtful foil: he’s got a profound faith in the power of his paintbrush, is unable to understand Warhol’s flippancy, and is endlessly eloquent even though he’s constantly half-stoned. Together, they debate the purpose of art and create tentative artworks together. The authenticity-obsessed Basquiat cajoles Warhol into picking up a paintbrush after decades of screenprinting, while Warhol persuades Basquiat to indulge his fixation with the empty visual trappings of American capitalism.

Anthony McCarten’s play is a fantastically enjoyable exercise in giving the audience what they want. It’s packed with gossipy insights – from Basquiat’s sexual relationship with Madonna to Warhol’s fight to conceal his homosexuality from journalists – and quaint moments of humour, like when Warhol is unable to resist whipping out a hoover at Basquiat’s filthy flat. And Young Vic artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah’s production is just as crowd-pleasing. It starts in a hubbub of Eighties music mash-ups, Madonna and hip-hop crashing together, against projections of New York streets on designer Anna Fleischle’s evocative, towering set. Basquiat’s signature scrawls deck the theatre’s walls. There’s something satisfying about the way that Bettany and Pope go from mutual suspicion, eyeing each other up like rival alley cats, to cosying up together against the inhospitable world.

Sometimes their blossoming bond feels a little too neat and implausible: McCarten clearly loves both artists too much to shade in the darkness and narcissism that biographers have found in Warhol, or to delve too deeply into the torment in Basquiat’s psyche that led him to cover his canvases in graves and skulls. This is the kind of talky drama where the protagonists tell us, rather than show us, who they are. But it’s hard to mind when McCarten’s writing is so good at a punchy, well-turned aphorism: “All artists with wit should be listened to; all gloomy bastards should be clubbed to death,” proclaims Warhol at one point. And in this play, wit wins out.

The Collaboration’s story stops just before things get messy – before the pair’s canvases were panned by the critics, before Basquiat was woundingly described as Warhol’s “mascot” in the press, and before both artists’ premature deaths a couple of years later. Instead, it’s a brilliantly performed, pacy portrait of a relationship at its warmest and best: tinted in the bright, saturated hues of the canvases they shared.

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