A Review of The Collaboration
Anthony McCarten’s new play is an eclectic take on the relationship between two art world legends, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The story flows through their creative process and the unfolding of a long-lasting, deep friendship and working relationship.
What is The Collaboration?
The Collaboration is a play directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah. Originating on the West End at the Young Vic theatre in London, the play stars Paul Bettany as Andy Warhol and Jeremy Pope as Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The story is set in 1984, when the Pop Artist Warhol and the spirited young painter Basquiat collaborated on a series of works.
Their eccentric agent, Bruno Bischofberger, persuades them to work together by lying to each of them about their supposed admiration of one another. He aims to create a show that will not just be “two giants coming together” but “the most exciting show in the history of contemporary art.”
The play then follows their relationship as collaborative artists through the duration of the project.
The first act of The Collaboration is stilted — deliberately so — but it can feel static. Most scenes involve the artists talking about the purpose of art and the meanings it holds for them.
For art lovers, much of this feels familiar, especially the discourse around Warhol’s soup tins, the commodification of art, and his vision of the artist as a brand. However, those less familiar with the larger art world discourse around Warhol may find it chewier.
Paul Bettany captures Warhol’s tics, such as his gawkiness stares, with a deadpan streak of cynicism and sarcasm sprinkled in. The neuroticism is palpable, to which one doesn’t know whether it’s another example of cringe or that Warhol was genuinely sociopathic.
While Bettany gave us a version of Warhol we wanted and expected, Pope stole the show. Pope’s Basquiat gives us a seductive, childlike free spirit but remains —– maybe deliberately —more of an enigma.
He kept the audience wondering at the edge of what he would do or say next. Together, and the starring pairs it was genuinely unexpected and gave the artists almost the same energy that is conveyed on his canvases.
Jeremy Pope’s interpretation of Basquait compliments Paul Bettany’s rendition of Warhol in a polarizing fashion, focusing on how the two contradicted one another. Basquiat dances to Miles Davis across the room and paints with more expressive vigor, expressing his passion for art comes as a way of escape from his every day, and a natural, almost supernatural talent.
The conversation feels as familiar as the Marilyn Monroe silk screens that hang at the back of the room and seems to tiptoe around points of conflict rather than going in with both feet. Such as Warhol’s inability to physically paint himself, needing Basquiat to essentially coerce him.
The Pop Art Duo
In the second act of The Collaboration, the play raises the stakes. It’s filled with intellectual arguments running alongside the human drama of their jagged friendship.
There are several arresting moments, particularly around Basquiat having witnessed cops viciously beating his friend Michael Stewart on the street. Crucially, this happens offstage, but the experience and its aftermath powerfully affect and determine the outcome of Basquiat and Warhol’s already tricky relationship.
There are gusts of rage, accusation, and mistrust between them, making the emotional volatility of the second act all the louder against the quiet of the first.
We witness Basquiat’s struggle with addiction and his torrid relationship with fame. Meanwhile, Bettany delivers an almost uncomfortable self-reflection from Warhol, battling his issues with recovery from being shot, self-esteem struggles, and touching on his complex relationship with Catholicism and his own sexuality.
Warhol’s objectification of Basquiat is powerfully conveyed without ignoring the racialized overtones of their dynamic — he speaks of him as a Haitian immigrant (while the show does note Basquiat was born and raised in NYC), and calls his works “primal.”
Warhol’s voyeuristic appetite as a filmmaker is present throughout the play, as his motive for the collaboration was to film the young Basquiat while he worked, spoke, and sometimes eluded a sexual desire while being shirtless and working out.
The gulf between the first and second acts feels wide, though, and we wish for a smoother arc between the two, which might fill us in on the formation of the intense bond we see at the end.
The Set Design Takes You Back To ‘84
A colorful and lively production under Kwame Kwei-Armah’s direction takes us back to New York in the mid-80s.
There was a live DJ that was spinning classic disco prior and in-between sets, fully immersing the audience in the time of Basquiat and Warhol.
The sets of the studios and apartments were elegantly done. Warhol’s studio was neat, almost a gallery for his work, which seems fairly accurate given his position on germs and messes. Basquiat’s apartment was just the opposite, dirty and covered in half-finished paintings, and one cannot forget the refrigerator full of cash.
Critiques of The Collaboration
Aside from some of the dialogue offering more obvious characterizations of Warhol and Basquiat as artists, The Collaboration’s portrayal of their relationship felt both unfinished and one-sided.
Between the first and second half, it felt that there were key details left out on the development of the relationship where in the first five minutes of the second half, we were left making assumptions about their friendship, whether they had a sexual relationship, or were just commercial and artistic partners.
The story felt largely focused on Andy Warhol and his character development. This is partly due to the fact that much of the background provided for the writing came from the Andy Warhol Foundation. And as interesting it was to see Andy in a much more human state, there did seem to be a corollary flattening of Basquiat’s complexities.
The Collaboration is a story for our age of Twitter battles and irreconcilable ideological differences. Despite their charged rows, Andy and Basquiat do not stop talking or working together, and their final, touching portrait is one of love.
Both Bettany and Pope did a phenomenal job of portraying their celebrity roles and capturing the audience’s attention. The show itself was a fun drive into their world and aesthetic.
For those that are intrigued by their relationship and history of contemporary art, the play serves its purpose as a quick bite into the world of Warhol and Basquiat. However, for those more familiar, might find it lacking in nuance and the accuracy of its portrayal of the artists as opposed to characterizations of them.