Review: The Collaboration, Young Vic ★★★★☆

Much like Anthony McCarten’s 2019 play The Pope, adapted in Netflix’s The Two Popes for which he received an Academy Award nomination, The Collaboration features an imagined meeting between two unlikely individuals. The tougher Pope Benedict XVI and the friendlier Pope Francis mirroring the straight-laced Andy Warhol (Paul Bettany) and the fashionable Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeremy Pope).

It should perhaps be no surprise that there are parallels. McCarten’s new play is billed as part two of The Worship Trilogy that opens with The Pope and will be followed by Wednesday at Warren’s, Friday at Bill’s – imaging the meetings between Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. The trilogy explores religion, art and money.

Jeremy Pope and Paul Bettany. Photo: Marc Brenner.

This is Warhol’s second appearance at the Young Vic in as many plays, though his appearance in James Graham’s Best of Enemies – another imagining of two historical figures – was much smaller than this outing which takes place at the beginning and end of the collaborations between the older Warhol and the younger Basquiat. Warhol’s market value is falling while Basquiat is on the rise when they are put together by art dealer Bruno Bischofberger (Alec Newman).

It is the beginning of an unlikely bromance in the vein of many bromantic comedies – but under Kwame Kwei-Armah’s direction The Collaboration is better than that label and the themes are wide ranging; art, consumerism, race, police brutality, and mortality. There is no real conclusion drawn on the topics, and that seems to be the point – this is a meeting of two intellectual minds and these discussions do not reach a true conclusion, similar to the debates between William F Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal in Best of Enemies.

Paul Bettany. Photo: Marc Brenner.

There are hints at the tragedies to come in both artist’s lives; ‘a little fame you survive hospital, too much fame, you’re dead’ says Warhol of his desire not to get a pain in his side checked – later, he hopes aloud that the heroin-using Basquiat doesn’t die before he gets clean. Both Bettany (in his first stage performance in over 20 years) and Pope produce masterful performances, managing to assume their famous characters without resorting to mimicry or caricatures. Bettany is particularly striking as Warhol, embodying a nervous edge that encapsulates his neuroses while Pope’s incessant energy as Basquiat acts as a perfect foil to Warhol’s stiffness.

There is a wonderful set too by Anna Fleischle that is elevated through Duncan McClean’s video projections that create New York on the Young Vic’s stage, and even manages to create the back of canvases – the work on the reverse shining translucently through.

Jeremy Pope and Paul Bettany. Photo: Marc Brenner.

Some may argue that there is a slight imbalance in the play between the two acts with the slower act one essentially laying the groundwork for a payoff in act two. However, there is much value in the opening exchanges as we watch two artists take the measure of each other – much like two boxers circling each other in round one of a prize fight. But act two is where the play shines and the worship theme becomes apparent – Warhol worshipping Basquiat, and maybe trying to live a little more through him.

The Collaboration is at the Young Vic until 2 April