Theatre Review - The Collaboration

When in 1984 a savvy art dealer, Bruno Bischofberger (Alec Newman), suggested Andy Warhol (Paul Bettany) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeremy Pope) work together on a series of paintings, it seemed like a smart move.

In New York, the collaboration was billed as the boxing match of the century, although the odds were clearly stacked in Basquiat’s favour. Warhol was on the decline. He was 56, mentally and physically scarred. Basquiat, 23, was up and coming, a wonder-kid taking the art world by storm.

It did not prove a fruitful alliance – they  made 16 pieces but the exhibition was considered a financial flop. However, this meeting of minds, representing different intellectual standpoints on art, offers fertile ground for playwright Anthony McCarten.

Bettany and Pope certainly look and sound the part as they circle around each other in their work spaces. McCarten imagines their conversations and draws on what united them – both considered themselves outsiders who, despite their success, felt alienated from the traditional art world. They were also paranoid; Warhol fretted about his health and creativity while Basquiat kept his considerable wealth in the fridge.

Kwame Kwei-Armah stages The Collaboration with great panache - the two halves kick off with a dj set by Xana - and the acting is pitch-perfect. Anna Fleischle’s design  and Duncan McLean’s video projection add lustre to the period setting.

However, despite a promising start and the engaging subject matter, McCarten’s play never full ignites. It’s packed full of quotes, some interesting observations about the commodification of art, and the period detail is superb, but the artists’ shared journey meanders and we learn little that is truly insightful about either of them.

There are hints of the impending tragedy. Within a few years of their meeting, both would be dead. Warhol suffered a cardiac arrhythmia following gallbladder surgery in February 1987 while Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in August 1988.

Until April 2

Originally published in the Camden New Journal