In a wooden-beamed loft that’s as cavernous and ribbed as the belly of a whale, the twisting bodies of wooden puppets glint in the light. Given a vast, intricate design by Anna Fleischle, Martin McDonagh’s play is basically a fairytale about storytelling, and the messages that are embedded in the tales we tell each other. His premise is that Hans Christian Anderson’s legendarily bleak tales weren’t written by this jovial carpenter: that, instead, they were written by Marjory, a woman from the Congo who he held prisoner in a tiny box, who pours her pain into intense stories of female suffering The Little Mermaid, or The Match Girl. And that this Danish legend grew fat on the profits while censoring her real messages, including removing the fact that the mermaid was black (in a frame-breaking jibe, Hans boasts that he takes out the bits he doesn’t like, just like a German theatre director).
There’s the germ of something really interesting about authorship and deception here, and the way that the hypocrisy of the default-white literary voice of Victorian childhoods was a direct product of colonialism and exploitation. It made me think of Thomas Eccleshare’s Heather, which also poked at the thought that a seemingly benign, familiar white author persona is more palatable than an unknown writer of colour’s voice. But like Heather, it’s doing two conflicting things at the same time. Yes, it’s exploring authorship and privilege. But it’s also doing so while in comfortable possession of that same, unacknowledged privilege. The universal white male voice that McDonagh attributes to Hans Christian Anderson is also the one that lets him see erasure, slavery, and genocide as perfect subjects for a knockabout Christmas show: a comedy starring Jim Broadbent, a hammy voiceover by ‘the’ Tom Waites, and a cast that includes six adorable fairytale-loving kids, there to add piquancy to all the (many) sweary bits.
The story (loosely) follows Hans Christian Anderson’s famous real-life trip to stay with Charles Dickens (who chronicled his mounting fury at the storyteller’s visit in a series of entertainingly irate letters). And while he bores the dickens out of Dickens, Marjory is left trapped in a 3ft cage – played by Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles, she’s resourceful and wry, undercutting Jim Broadbent’s creepily faux-benevolent and appallingly stupid Hans. Both keep seeing a pair of blood-covered Belgian men, who are a premonition of the genocide in Congo that happens years after this story is set. Marjory is hellbent on preventing this genocide, as well as on finding her lost sister. McDonagh’s strange, time-bending fairytale narrative periodically conjures the horror of everything Marjory has been through, and of the ten million pointless, undersung deaths that stupidity and greed caused in the Congo – sparked because Belgian colonialists wanted to secure their supply of rubber for bicycle wheels.
But even though McDonagh’s text is endlessly self-aware, he never bends round to examine the still-lingering power dynamics that brought his perspective on colonialism into being and into one of the country’s biggest theatres (and it’s a muddled, stage-unready thing, which would flounder in anything other than a mega-budget mainstage production with his name stamped on it). Nor does he consider what his own equivalent of a 3ft cage in his attic might be. A Very Very Very Dark Matter is full of casual cruelty and exploitation of stereotypes: its laughs lands on beats like ‘pygmy’, or on images like that of Hans feeding a string of sausages into the cage where this malnourished black woman is held (after Exhibit B, surely the debate over whether white artists should present degrading images of enslaved people of colour should be over). And any sense that the handling of the Congo plot might have been intended to be sensitive vanishes when you consider the constant other dashes of racism and ableism that are thrown into the plot, like the recurring extraneous jokes about Chinese ghosts.
It’s too flippant, too lazy to be given the benefit of the doubt, or to be taken as the serious exploration of colonialism that the four star reviews from the BBC, The Times, The FT, and Guardian suggest it is. Fundamentally, it’s a story that would raise screams of laughter from anyone who thinks that PC culture really has gone mad, a show that white families will chuckle guiltily over on Christmas outings, wondering if it’s in slightly bad taste. And if you’re confronting colonialism by making a show that racists would find jolly funny, then you’re not really confronting it at all.
A Very Very Very Dark Matter is on at Bridge Theatre until Sunday 6th January. More info here.