Exactly a year ago we came to London’s Bridge Theatre for the first time. It had only opened recently but we were standing in front of closed doors. Not even the foyer lights were switched on. I had bought the tickets a month before when looking for a Christmassy night out; not something as loud as a panto but happily a classic story. When I read about a new dark comedy about Danish post-romantic writer Hans Christian Andersen (played by Jim Broadbent) in a brand-new theatre I booked front row tickets immediately. It took a lot of ticket checking to realise that I had booked the show not one month, but thirteen months in advance. Since then scriptwriter Martin McDonagh can claim to have written the film of the year, Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri. What a build-up!
Andersen was a wondrous man. Being born into poverty in 1805 on the Danish island of Odense he became an international sensation for crafting wonderfully poetic fairy tales which were already in his lifetime read in the highest courts and translated into many languages. In an era when social mobility and cosmopolitanism was not a choice most people had, he often referenced other nations and cultures. Andersen loved to travel, always with a diary close by. Many contemporaries found him awkward to be around though, he never married and probably never had any intimate relations; Charles Dickens famously complained about the visitor from Copenhagen who was not able to hold a conversation, showed no understanding for local customs but would not leave for weeks either. More on this later.
This play is by all means grotesque: While shops specialised for colonial goods pop up everywhere in in Northern Europe, Andersen keeps a ghost writer in a wooden box, hanging from a pendulum – a small maimed lady from the Congo he feeds through a hole. On what is maybe the finest setting seen all year (I am going to watch out for more from stage designer Anna Fleischle) historic facts mix with nightmares, silliness and very dark humour. Andersen does not seem to believe his living arrangements are odd and travels to London to find out about Dickens’ ghost writer of similar size and past, convinced that he must have one as well. And Dickens does have his own skeleton in the attic. Literally. Had not Tom Waits haunting narrating warned us in his introduction?
During his absence, Andersen’s prisoner is kept in her cage but war trauma and starvation make her find a way out. She will wait for Andersen to return before leaving him but until then several curiosities happen: Time travelling, history correction, the return of the death and many more oddities related to mass murders and abuse. Yes, fantastic tales. Artificial fairy tales. Unbearably real drama. All combined.
Is it coldblooded audacity to mingle alternative outcomes with well-established facts (it worked in Inglorious Bastards)? Or can history sometimes be studied enough that one can be creative enough to move it in a more fantastic sphere? Are some truths just too hard to accept otherwise?
After tonight I still do not have an answer but plenty to think about. Opinions are strongly divided after the show – however, I believe what I have just seen is brilliant.
A Very Very Very Dark Matter by Martin McDonagh
***** out of 5 stars
Directed by Matthew Dunster
Played until early 2019.
We paid GBP 25 for each front row seat (A25 and A26)