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'The Collaboration' Young Vic review: Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope transform into Warhol and Basquiat

The Collaboration is at the Young Vic through 2 April.

Suzy Evans
Suzy Evans

What is art? And what is art’s role in society? Is creative expression derivative? Or is it putting the world in a larger context, commenting on the very thing from which it takes inspiration?

These are questions that have always plagued artists, collectors, curators, and enthusiasts, and Anthony McCarten’s new play The Collaboration, about the 1980s partnership between Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, dramatises the age-old conundrum.

McCarten doesn’t offer anything particularly new in his take on the iconic work between the two artists. Rather, this is a fairly straight-forward story of opposites attracting: at first there’s resistance, but ultimately the artistic partnership blossoms. The play is a tad cookie-cutter, but the same has been said about Warhol’s pop art. So truly, the subject is in the eye of the beholder.

Director Kwame Kwei-Armah also takes a very direct approach to the text, which seems to bely the more adventurous topic. The entirety of the play takes place in both of the artist’s studios, giving it a very living-room play feel and texture.(Save a few inventive projections from Duncan McLean to capture Warhol’s obsession with film.) For a play about artists who subvert the expected, it’s surprising how comfortable the story is in realism. Anna Fleischle’s set and costumes create a very lived-in environment.

The real highlights of the show are Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope’s performances as Warhol and Basquiat respectively. Bettany is practically unrecognizable, and everything, from his mannerisms to his voice, helps him become the artist.

Pope is also entirely physical in his transformative portrayal of Basquiat, and where Bettany is stiff and straight-laced as Warhol, Pope practically dances around the stage as the young graffiti artist turned pioneer of the Neo-Expressionist movement. Together, the pair are the pinnacle of yin and yang, true opposites who seem to fit together effortlessly.

While The Collaboration may not provide any answers to the questions about art’s role in society, the story does offer a forum in which to explore our culture of consumerism. However, the story feels slightly staid as a play, and perhaps the forthcoming film adaptation will provide a different dimension. After all, it’s all in how you perceive it.

*The Collaboration is at the Young Vic through 2 April. *

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