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Issue 1794 (PDF)
The student newspaper of Imperial College London

Keep the Cat Free

The Collaboration Review

Anthony McCarten’s new play about Andy Warhol and Jean Michel Basquiat wants to poke fun at the economics of market, how feeble it is, how fickle it is.

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in Issue 1794


The Collaboration

★ ★
The Young Vic
February 16th - April 2nd 2022
From £10

Anthony McCarten’s new play about Andy Warhol and Jean Michel Basquiat wants to poke fun at the economics of market, how feeble it is, how fickle it is. Sounds from an auction are played over the end of the final scene as the stage fades slowly to black, familiar sounds for the real-life Warhol and Basquiat whose artwork sold for millions in their lifetime, and even more today. Irony of ironies, Tracy Emin is sitting on the row in front of me. Tracy Emin whose unmade bed sold for $3.77 Million in 2014. It was a bit like the play within a play in Hamlet. Hamlet re-enacts the murder of his father with King Claudius in the audience, who Hamlet suspects to be the killer, hoping to “catch the conscience of the King” by recreating the murder as accurately as possible. I surreptitiously glanced over to Emin to see if I could catch the conscience of the artist. 

Except that this was not like Hamlet at all because the play never mustered the courage to say anything meaningful about the culture industry or anything in particular. Instead, it chose to recreate caricatured versions of Warhol and Basquiat, throw them in a room, and give them nothing to do other than spout pseudo-philosophical platitudes about the meaning of art.With nothing driving the first act, the play became tiresome quickly. The second act admittedly had more to wrestle with. Basquiat has a break down because of the death of his friend at the hands of police brutality. We see references to his heroin addition, that would eventually kill him. We see Warhol explain that he doesn’t paint because second generation Czech immigrant Andrew Warhola paints, New York Andy Warhol makes prints. But there is very little narrative thread to tie these concepts together to reach a genuine conclusion; the two just decide to be friends because the play needs an emotional resolution.

Is this some kind of post-ironic metafiction performance of one of Warhol’s famously vacuous artworks deliberately lacking meaning or plot I see before me? Probably not. In reality it is just not well written, another irony given Anthony McCarten’s background as a screenwriter. The writer is behind most big budget biopics from the last five years(Bohemian Rhapsody, The Two Popes, Darkest Hour) McCarten has won BAFTAs and been nominated for two Oscars. 

On the subject of art and money, Paul Bettany plays Andy Warhol. Bettany is an actor who probably doesn’t have to work another day in his life now that he has cashed his Marvel films pay checks. Bettany gives a solid impression of Warhol, but cannot goes beyond the surface to explore Warhol’s depth as a character thanks to the limited script. His Warhol is the kind you will see parodied on The Simpsons rather than a genuine human being. Jeremy Pope is less cartoonish as Basquiat. He convincingly portrays the artist as someone who cannot cope with his demons bouncing around the stage with a childlike energy to deflect the inner turmoil. The two share one moment of emotional fragility: the revelation of both artist’s scars, Warhol from an assassination attempt, Basquiat from being hit by a car. But nothing becomes of the moment. 

The problem with trying to poke fun at the relationship between art and money is that there is nothing to say that people do not already know. Yes, the art market is insane. Yes, most art is subservient to market demand. Whether it is graffiti artists, cinematic universes, or Hollywood biopics, where the money goes, art will follow. Just ask Tracey Emin. She did not seem to enjoy herself. But then again, neither did I.

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