|By JOHN NATHAN
The latest play by Martin McDonagh – these days a big-hitting Hollywood writer/director, especially after his Oscar-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – feels like a very, very, very inside joke.
If the play is about anything it is about European colonialists, especially the Belgians who committed genocide when they ruled the Congo in the 19th century. Then again, the play might actually be about white people’s exploitation of black people more generally. The figure at the centre of this play is none other than Hans Christian Andersen, played by (also none other than) British stage and screen star Jim Broadbent.
We first encounter Hans at the launch of one of his books. He is riding high on admiration for such much-loved stories as The Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen and The Red Shoes. But when he gets home we discover that all these works were actually written by Marjory, a Congolese pygmy woman played by the American actor Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles. She has plans to avenge or avert the Congolese holocaust, though to do that she will not only have to travel through time to the future but also escape Anderson’s Copenhagen attic where has callously imprisoned her.
So perhaps McDonagh is not really concerned with colonialism so much as that hidden part of great artists whose success is down to something that would diminish them if it were widely known. Certainly, when Andersen visits Dickens in London and overstays his welcome by five weeks (it could not have lasted more than five minutes because Hans keeps getting his host’s name mixed up with that of Charles Darwin's), it turns out that the author of Bleak House also once had his very own Congolese pygmy lady to do his writing for him.
This then is not a play that seeks to present facts. The tone of Matthew Dunster’s production – much like the growl of Tom Waits’ recorded narration – is unmistakably satirical. And although Andersen’s shadowy attic, which is festooned with hanging puppets (design by Anna Fleischle), is spookier than a bat in a belfry, Broadbent’s portrayal of the writer is one big, if often very funny, joke.
The man’s racism, sadism and plagiarism are all filtered through a breezy, rosy-cheeked cheerfulness. Meanwhile, Dickens is portrayed (by Phil Daniels) as the foul-mouthed patriarch of an even fouler mouthed family. So McDonagh has yet more fun subverting grand men of letters to within an inch of their literary reputations.
But a satire needs to be clear about its target. And when you consider that the venue in which this play has received its world premiere was founded and is run by the National Theatre’s former Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner, this work sits oddly with Hytner’s admirable instinct for inclusive and, in the best possible sense, crowd-pleasing theatre.
Granted, the imagery and ideas on display here have a bravura quality. The gothic grotesquery echoes McDonagh’s The Pillowman, which Hytner premiered at the National in 2003 and which also starred Broadbent, that time as a policeman investigating a spate of gruesome child murders.
But the sense here is of McDonagh expressing something that only he and those in-the-know can fully appreciate. There is a whiff of smug exclusivity in the air. And as McDonagh's foul-mouthed Dickens might say, "F*** that."