Copenhagen, the 19th century: Danish celebrity author Hans Christian Anderson is regaling an audience with his latest fairy tale, The Little Mermaid.
There are celebratory fireworks and showers of admiration for the writer, but there are also ghostly figures.
And when Anderson returns home, climbing to the attic of his house, it is to discuss these ghosts with Marjory, a disabled Congolese pygmy, who he keeps in a box and who writes the stories for him.
But why doesn’t she try to escape; is she and her situation unique and what does Charles Dickens have to do with it all?
Martin McDonagh’s latest play, A Very Very Very Dark Matter, is going to upset people. Though to be strictly accurate, it’s still previewing until 24 October and it’s already provoked Indignant of Islington and Vexed of Vauxhall to express their horror online.
One can imagine this work will trigger an orgy of offence.
Taken at the most simple face value, the play laughs at colonialism and thumbs its nose at the crimes of empires. And because McDonagh has written a funny play, the audience laughs along and, therefore, becomes complicit.
Except that this is not supposed to be taken at face value, and only a monumental naïf or someone utterly dedicated to a peacock-like display of their social justice warrior credentials would not understand or would pretend not to understand what McDonagh is doing.
And incidentally, if you push that idea that he’s genuinely laughing at the crimes of imperialism, then you’re saying that the black cast members are Uncle Toms, and I would suggest people don’t go down that route.
There isn’t much of a plot, as such. Like Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, this is more of a meditation on a number of themes.
Not least among these is the trivialising of the treatment of the crimes of colonialism – an attitude that has reared its head again in recent years, with continuing exceptionalism and the concomitant belief of some Brexiteers that, once free from the EU, the UK can build Empire II and indeed, the rest of the world is ready to rush into our arms to give us the bestest ever trade deals with only five minutes discussion needed. Because we’re Britain, doncha know.
Of course, the same can be said of the Trump-era US too, with the crude and fact-free racism of the MAGA crowd, convincing itself that ‘true America’ is WASP America.
Such attitudes never went away, but increased nationalism elsewhere around the globe means they’re re-emerging. And therefore, it is important to remind people of just what nationalism and colonialism means in reality.
McDonagh – a writer in whom the Irish gothic tradition meets London-Irish experience, with punk mixed in (as Fintan O’Toole’s excellent programme essay notes) – is ideally suited to push boundaries so that, while A Very Very Very Dark Matter is very funny, it isn’t what you’d describe as ‘comfortable’.
In concentrating on Belgian imperialism – and the genocide in what was the Congo – the play raises what will, for many, be history that they are not familiar with. In pointing up the rape of the region for resources, he even manages a sideswipe at environmentally-holier-than-thou cyclists, noting that while Leopold II’s publicly-stated intention (as with other countries) was to ‘civilise’ and Christianise, the less public one was the desire for ivory and rubber – here, with the latter used for bicycle tires.
A Very Very Very Dark Matter is probably not for the faint-hearted or those who get upset by ‘bad language’ – it’s gloriously sweary in a very Irish way.
It’s short – 90 minutes with no interval – angry and funny at the same time, and defies easy labels.
Director Matthew Dunster has done an excellent job and Anna Fleische’s design is superb.
As Marjory, Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles, on her debut, is simply outstanding and more than holds her own with her massively experienced co-star.
Jim Broadbent as Anderson is a delight as the bumbling, eccentric and crass writer, living off Marjory’s talent and, all the while, pleading with her that *his* colonial crimes aren’t as bad as those of others. And his swearing is a glory.
Phil Daniels as “Charles FUCKING DICKENS!” is a hoot too, and getting Tom Waits to record the role of narrator adds both to the fairy-tale aspect of the piece, as well as the sinister and eerie nature of it.
• A Very Very Very Dark Matter, is at London’s bridgetheatre.co.uk until 6 January 2019.