Hans Christian Andersen had his secrets. By day, a revered children’s writer — the Greatest of Danes; by night, a repressed brothel habitué. Whitewashed as his legacy has been, it’s unlikely he kept a pygmy woman prisoner in a mahogany box, passing her words off as his own, as Martin McDonagh’s disjointed new play portrays.
Part question-mark over artistic identity, part surreal metaphor for colonial guilt, “A Very Very Very Dark Matter” is a very, very, very strange play. It finds Jim Broadbent’s airheaded Andersen living in a treehouse-style loft, taking credit for tales churned out by his one-legged, short-statured Congolese captive, Mbute Masakele (Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles). He calls her Marjory — unable or unwilling to wrap his tongue round those ms — and feeds sausage strings through a hole in her three-foot-square box.
There’s some literary logic behind this grim flight of fancy. Andersen’s stories are rife with self-doubt: ugly ducklings, exposed emperors and writers outdone and undone by their own shadows. In a characteristically campy turn, Broadbent plays him as a tone-deaf bimbo, reveling in his unearned reputation as he flicks through his fan mail, and dispensing rambling racist tangents at public readings. He’s a fraud, and a foul one, sadistically squeezing his creative slave back into a box he downsizes, one inch at a time.
Essentially, McDonagh makes literal the debt that white, western culture owes to colonialism, insinuating that all its artistic achievements — not just its economic strength — sit on a crest of global suppression. Charles Dickens (Phil Daniels), with whom Andersen stays uninvited for five torturous weeks, becomes a boorish playboy with his own pygmy proxy. Meanwhile, two bloodied Belgians, back from the future to kill Mbute before she kills them, serve a stark reminder of colonial supremacy’s awful human cost. In the Congo, the Belgians left some 10 million dead, and yet, as Mbute disdainfully points out, states still stand up to King Leopold II.
It is, needless to say, a delirious comic drama. All the old McDonagh tropes are in there, and, as ever, he plunges a finger into open cultural wounds. His breed of black comedy has always cackled in the face of political correctness, but the sure hand that steered the old faux Irish farces completely deserts him here. McDonagh’s jokes are off-color, but never beyond the pale; his plot’s ticklish but never tips over to uproarious. A meandering structure lets air into a potboiler, and without coiled intensity, his shock-jock tactics land like damp squibs. This isn’t daredevil comedy, just vaguely pathetic, cocktail-napkin stuff.
It doesn’t help that the play’s substantive points are suffocated by willful surrealism and LOLs. Tom Waits’ gravelly American voiceover narrates, adding a Hollywood swagger, but McDonagh’s stylistic mash-up of cinematic thriller, populist vaudeville and grim fairytale never coheres. Instead of an argument about cultural dominance, it adds up to a muddled mish-mash of which Matthew Dunster’s staging makes little sense. For all the visual flair of Anna Flieschle’s design, an oak-beamed attic strung with gothic marionettes, McDonagh’s play feels like set pieces and comic sketches taped together. Very, very, very dark? Maybe — but lacking in matter.