Theatre Review: The Collaboration (Young Vic Theatre) ★★★★1/2

Paul Bettany is back on stage, after an absence of nearly 20 years, as queer icon Andy Warhol in Andrew McCarten’s vibrant new play The Collaboration at London’s Young Vic Theatre. Joined by Hollywood and Pose star Jeremy Pope as artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, this is a star-studded hit of theatre that is more than likely headed to the bigger stages of the West End and Broadway, and to the big screen.

In the 80s, as Warhol is struggling to balance his life late on in his career, art dealer Bruno Bischofberger (Alec Newman) suggests a blockbuster collaboration with the exciting new artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Styled as a boxing match, ‘Basquiat vs. Warhol’ will set the art world alight, refresh Warhol’s career and further establish Basquiat on the scene. What starts as a clash of artistic iconoclasts, develops into a deep friendship between two lost souls. 

Paul Bettany as Andy Warhol in The Collaboration. Photo: Marc Brenner.

Bettany mines Warhol’s mannerisms for comedy. He is all odd-angles, polite gestures and indecision. While Pope’s Basquiat is a ball of energy barely contained by his skin; always on the move, always struggling. Just as their art styles were seemingly at odds with each other’s, so too are strange bedfellows. Warhol sees the genius in Basquiat’s work and is both attracted to it and scared by it. Basquiat feels Warhol has lost his way. 

While Bettany may be the established star here, getting to play with the comedic chops he demonstrated so well in Marvel’s WandaVision series, Pope is the powerhouse. His Basquiat is a whirlwind; a lost young genius who can not settle, torn between innocence and commercial success.

Jeremy Pope as Basquiat and Paul Bettany as Warhol in The Collaboration. Photo: Marc Brenner.

McCarten’s script sparkles best when the characters are in isolation, discussing each other’s work. While occasionally bogged down by exposition and biographical detail for those unfamiliar with the scenario, the humour and compassion always rises to the surface. However The Collaboration knows that it is here to entertain first and foremost, leaving most of the big issues well enough alone in favour of an odd-couple set up. The whole performance feels choreographed to put the audience in a good mood (including a pre-show DJ pumping out 80s hip-hop jams). The audience is never really challenged by these artists or their lives. Directed by Young Vic artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, The Collaboration is a certified crowd-pleaser.

Paul Bettany as Andy Warhol in The Collaboration. Photo: Marc Brenner.

It’s refreshing to see Bettany outside of the Marvel muscle-suit he is strapped into to play The Vision and carefully walk the fine line between caricature and character. His Warhol is the most approachable I have seen in a long time. And in a year of so much discussion of the film Dune, it’s nice to see the previous version of Paul Atredies (from Syfy’s Dune miniseries), Alec Newman again.

The Collaboration is clearly a play at the start of its journey, likely to take these actors to Broadway and Hollywood (the film has already been greenlit), which makes the chance to see it in the intimate Young Vic Theatre so appealing. Get in now if you can, because this play is going places.

By Chad Armstrong

The Collaboration runs at London’s Young Vic Theatre until April 2nd 2022. Click here for tickets and details.

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