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‘The Collaboration’: Warhol and Basquiat – The Men Behind the Art

Paul Bettany as Andy Warhol. Jeremy Pope as Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo by Marc Brenner. The image has been cropped.

Roar writer Keir Holmes on “The Collaboration,” a delightfully human drama that speculates on the nature of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s relationship.

It was during GCSE Art classes that I began to see Andy Warhol as something more than the guy who painted Marilyn Monroe. In the art class, another student explained to me that Warhol was a hack who had ruined art for everyone. This account went against claims I began to hear that he was one of the greatest artists who ever lived. It was, however, an equally mythic statement about a far more complex man than either description implies. Having listened to such wildly different opinions on him, I was intrigued to hear that writer Anthony McCarten and director Kwame Kwei-Armah were creating a play that not only explored Warhol’s personal life, but also one that centred his conflicts and collaboration with Jean-Michel Basquiat, an artist whose approach to art directly opposed his.

Jeremy Pope as Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo by Marc Brenner. The image has been cropped.

The biopics that McCarten has written, which include films such as “The Theory of Everything,” “Darkest Hour,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” focus less on the work of great men and more on the lives that they lived. Much like a portrait artist, he aims to convey the essence of his subjects through his work. Both the script and the direction reflect this approach. We never see the collaborative exhibitions that the two artists work on, only the development of their relationship. Artwork serves primarily as set-dressing or a point of discussion, and when Warhol and Basquiat paint, we almost never see what they are creating. While the events that occur in the play are almost entirely speculative, the picture that McCarten and Kwei-Armah paint of the two artists is delightfully human.

Given McCarten’s focus on his subjects above all else, it is unsurprising that the cast contains only two other actors playing minor characters alongside Warhol and Basquiat. The set is similarly minimalist. We see only the clean white walls of Warhol’s studio displaying his iconic paintings of Monroe and Campbell’s soup cans, contrasted with a floor splattered with vibrant paint reflective of Basquiat’s faster, messier, and more improvisational style of work. This gives us few distractions from the play’s action, which consists of a lengthy duologue where the two artists discuss the purpose of art, that in the second act unravels into an exploration of the artists’ psyches.

Paul Bettany as Andy Warhol. Photo by Marc Brenner. The image has been cropped.

As the show is so reliant on its two leads, whether or not it works rests on their performances. Paul Bettany, best known for playing Vision in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, gives a wonderful performance as Warhol. Equal parts flamboyant and reserved, Warhol comes across as witty yet constantly guarded. At first unable to connect to others, he increasingly opens up to Basquiat as they develop their relationship.

Tony Award winner Jeremy Pope is equally compelling in his portrayal of Basquiat – far more enigmatic than Warhol, he is a force to be reckoned with. While the ageing Warhol is slow and methodical, Basquiat is filled with the energy of a young artist in his prime. Pope is particularly effective when highlighting the more fragile side of Basquiat. In one of the show’s most emotionally charged scenes, we see him alone on stage desperately attempting to distract himself from the death of his friend in any way he can.

Unfortunately, McCarten’s dedication to revealing the true nature of his subjects is occasionally detrimental to the play. After laying out Warhol and Basquiat’s opposing beliefs about art in the first act through an interesting debate, he undermines the power of this in the second act by suggesting that their philosophies are only surface-level, covering up insecurities that truly power their art. Regardless, “The Collaboration” is an admirable attempt to dig deep into the souls of two figures often defined by the work that they produced, aided by two unmissable performances.

“The Collaboration” is playing at the Young Vic until 2 April. You can book tickets here.

Former Culture Editor for Roar News.



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