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Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope star as legendary artists Warhol and Basquiat


Review: THE COLLABORATION, Young Vic Public fascination with unexpected celebrity pairings is not a new thing; before 50 Cent and Bette Midler buddied up, two very different artists were thrown together in the hope that some extraordinary work would be produced - what resulted was a genuine connection and a friendship that would endure until their deaths, only 18 months apart. Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat's collaboration is what forms the basis of Anthony McCarten's new play.

It's the early 80s, and Warhol feels his star is on the wane. He is reluctantly brought round to the idea of meeting rising star Basquiat to consider working together - unbeknownst to Warhol, Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger also has to achieve the same feat with Basquiat. After a tentative start, the pair find a way of fusing their styles together to create something new, and also begin to open up to each other. Remarkably, this shaky foundation solidifies and they become increasingly productive.

Bruno sets out the creative partnership as 'Basquiat vs. Warhol', and he's right to; though it doesn't sound like a collaboration, it's definitely an apt way of encapsulating the gulf between them when they first meet. Youth vs. experience, energy vs. control, new vs. old, messy vs. clean, brand vs. soul, and original vs. replica.

The fact that they managed to overcome their differences and find some common ground should give hope to us all. In a time of widespread polarisation of views, seeing two individuals from different generations and backgrounds listen to and learn from each other is a real tonic. We might get a lot more done if we could all function in a similar way.

Believe it or not, this play is based on real events - unlike plays like Mary Stuart and Insignificance, this actually happened and isn't a product of wishful thinking. It's a story of two men from migrant backgrounds who used art to escape from the life that was waiting for them.

McCarten's play has already been given the go-ahead to be turned into a film - this should be a pretty seamless transition as it already has cinematic qualities. Anna Fleischle's set designs transport you to first Warhol's and then Basquiat's studio, and Duncan McLean's projection design sets the scene further as we get a glimpse outside the windows onto the New York City streets below. Projecting footage of Warhol's filming onto the back wall during a scene also allows you to see things from a different angle, observing Basquiat through Warhol's eyes.

It could easily be a two-hander, however Bruno is clearly a key figure - Alec Newman plays him with good humour and excellent comic timing. Basquiat's on-off girlfriend Maya is sadly underwritten; whilst it's good to get a female voice in there, she doesn't really make her presence felt at all, despite a spirited effort from Sofia Barclay.

The play fizzes with tension before the two central characters meet, which becomes almost palpable once Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope come together as their counterparts. Bettany is wiry, bespectacled, and bewigged - almost unrecognisable as he takes on the personality of the eccentric pop artist. Pope captures the spirit and passion of Basquiat, and his performance is incredibly affecting in the second act when he deals with the aftermath of an old friend becoming a victim of police brutality. The pair have great chemistry, and bounce off one another as you imagine the real Warhol and Basquiat must have done.

You will leave the theatre still baffled by this unlikely friendship, as well as questioning the nature of art. Hopefully, too, this play will make you realise that our differences can actually bring us together. A great snapshot of two creative masters at work.

The Collaboration is at the Young Vic until 2 April

Picture credit: Marc Brenner

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From This Author - Debbie Gilpin