Anthony McCarten’s new play is an odd bromance between two art world legends, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Like McCarten’s The Pope (adapted into the Oscar-nominated film The Two Popes), it is based on real-life figures at ideological odds, this time in a more volatile head-to-head.
Warhol recently popped up, as a familiar figure in a fright wig, in James Graham’s 1960s political drama Best of Enemies at the Young Vic. He is back on the same stage now, played by Paul Bettany in the actor’s first theatrical appearance for more than 20 years.
The story is set in the 1980s when the middle-aged pop artist and the spirited young painter collaborated on a series of works, their partnership pitched as a boxing match in its marketing poster. “He’s old hat,” says Jeremy Pope’s Basquiat. His paintings are “so ugly and angry,” says Bettany’s Warhol. Yet they are persuaded to come together, this play dramatising their first day in the studio and what appears to be their last.
An ebullient production under Kwame Kwei-Armah’s direction (there is even a live DJ though, oddly, the music is only cranked up in between scenes), it has two star turns in the central performances and a spectacular set from Anna Fleischle: paint-splattered floorboards and white brick walls which recreate the look of a loft studio. Duncan McLean’s magnificent projections conjure the New York skyline on semi-diaphanous panels.
The friendship between the artists is a fascinating one – far spikier than in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic Basquiat – but it does not have the same quietly cumulative force as that in The Two Popes.
The first half is stilted – deliberately so – but feels a little slow and static, the artists talking about the purpose of art and the meanings it holds for them. Much of this feels overfamiliar, especially Warhol’s soup tins, the commodification of art and his vision of the artist as a brand. None of it feels mined deeply enough, and exposition glares through at times: Warhol makes a quip about the shooting that nearly killed him; Basquiat tells us what his former graffiti tag, Samo, stood for. 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.
The second half is far more animated with intellectual arguments running alongside the human drama of their jagged friendship. There are several arresting moments, with a shocking plotline about a Black street artist beaten into a coma by police officers which also refers back to Basquiat’s identity as a Black American of Puerto Rican and Haitian heritage. 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 relationship we see at the end. There are gusts of rage, accusation and mistrust between them, the emotional volatility of the second act all the louder against the quiet of the first.
Warhol’s objectification of Basquiat is powerfully conveyed, with all the racialised overtones – he speaks of him as a Haitian immigrant (“No, I’m an American,” says Basquiat), and calls his works “primal” (“Do you mean like a primate?” shoots back Basquiat in a line spoken in Schnabel’s biopic but better explored here).
Bettany and Pope do so much more than merely ventriloquising their celebrity parts. Bettany captures Warhol’s tics – his gawkiness and gormless stares with a deadpan streak of cynicism. He is a far more rounded character than David Bowie’s amusingly eccentric Warhol in Schnabel’s film and steers clear of caricature but certainly brings humour. Pope, meanwhile, gives us a seductive, childlike free spirit in his Basquiat but remains – maybe deliberately – more of an enigma.
Their collaboration is very much a story for our age of Twitter battles and irreconcilable ideological differences. Despite their charged rows, they do not stop talking or working together, and the final, touching, portrait of them is one of love.