Featuring a pygmy in an attic who write classic literature and ghost soldiers who admit to the slaughter of millions, the most shocking part of this play other than its closeness to Hans Christian Anderson’s real biography is probably the problematic language used throughout
Making its world premiere at the Bridge Theatre, Martin McDonagh’s A Very Very Very Dark Matter is an uncategorisable, wacky romp through the world of nineteenth-century children’s writer Hans Christian Andersen, thoroughly infused with the director’s predilection for expletives and crude national stereotypes (McDonagh directed Three Billboards in Ebbing Missouri, In Bruges, and Seven Psychopaths).
We first meet Marjory, (Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles), a Black pygmy woman who is introduced to us by a booming narrator and is imprisoned on-stage in a glass box, suspended from the ceiling of the attic in which Anderson resides. The attic is astonishingly proportioned and designed by Anna Fleischle, with high-vaulted ceilings shadowing an enormous collection of puppets, eerily suspended like the bodies of children.
Marjory is the true author of Andersen’s tales, and as he returns from a public reading, she berates him on the retraction of her original title ‘The Little Black Mermaid’ to which Andersen (Jim Broadbent) furiously explains “The Little Mermaid, no-colour- mentioned, which means white”. Broadbent takes centre stage, appropriately narcissistic and ceaselessly talkative as he gleefully reads his fan letters to the audience with borderless xenophobia (China, Ireland, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Germany). He opens a letter from an Irish orphan, considering, “Perhaps Maureen was writing from Ireland with a little potato dipped in ink?” It’s wince-worthy humour with clear parallels to In Bruges and a brand of comedy which would perhaps be best left in 2008.
There is a disturbing dimension to actively enjoying humour hinged on xenophobia in 2018, with an encroaching Brexit and the wider context of sweeping nationalism in countries such as Austria, Hungary, and Switzerland. This is offset somewhat by the presence of the ghosts of two blood-soaked Belgian soldiers, killed in the Congo Free State after conducting their own mass slaughter, in a time thereafter.
The soldiers (Ryan Pope, Graeme Hawley) speak with a soft Yorkshire lull in thick full-body prosthetics, desperately avowing that in spite of murdering ‘“10 million people, [and] that’s a lot of fucking people if you think about it . . . everybody else had a colony in Africa!” Their characters are comic and vitally educational, underscoring the continued presence of memorials to colonial figures such as King Leopold II, and the glaring lack of acknowledgement for the mass extermination of the population of the Congo Free State.
Andersen decides to travel to England to visit Charles Dickens, following a hunch that he also homes a pygmy person in his attic. In his excitement, he repeatedly calls him Darwin, to which Dickens (Phil Daniels) roars, “I’m the Christmas cripples, he’s the origin of the fucking species.” Daniels is dazzlingly exasperated in the role of Dickens and McDonagh’s depiction of the Dickens family’s attempts to boot Andersen out for overstaying his welcome is also impressively grounded in biographical truth, penning in his diary that, “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks – which seemed to the family AGES!”
Far from an Andersen scholar myself, my initial perception of the play was that it felt heavily laden with biographical amplifications and hyperbole. Post-performance, you may feel inclined to forage through Wikipedia to distinguish between the various strands and embellishments of Andersen’s biography which McDonagh plays with. You’ll be quick to discover that the mirage of Denmark’s sexless and honourable hero is far more complex than you first thought; a repressed homosexual man who was terrified of dogs, methodically recorded his wanks in his diary, kept a lengthy rope with him (at all times) incase he found himself stranded in a fire and visited sex workers for conversation and company. The degree to which McDonagh’s play aligns with Andersen’s bizzare biography is astonishing and makes for an impishly provocative iconoclastic display which jibes at the notion of ‘national heroes’.