Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Theatre review: A Thousand Miles of History

Last year the Royal Court did one of its Theatre Local seasons in the Bussey Building in Peckham, and the venue is now attempting to continue as a performance space. Although the third floor of a freezing building in a gloomy back alley off Rye Lane is perhaps a hard sell as a theatre, as evidenced by tonight's turnout: A Thousand Miles of History may be flawed, but it deserves an audience bigger than the seven people1 it got tonight. Harold Finley's play looks at the rise and fall of two of the biggest New York artists of the 1980s, Jean-Michel Basquiat (Michael Walters) and Keith Haring (Simon Ginty.) In a white warehouse space, hung with blank canvases in Mike Lees' design, Basquiat and Haring are friends who take the art scene by storm, blocking from their minds the knowledge that being the height of fashion means an inevitable fall from favour is coming.

Haring and especially Basquiat are fixated on the idea of fame so inevitably the ultimate art celebrity becomes their focus, and once they get themselves into Andy Warhol's (Adam Riches) circle he becomes a close friend to both, even as they start to grow apart from each other.

Of the two leads, Walters gets the meatier role as the dramatic, heroin-addicted Basquiat with his trademark spider-like dreadlocks. But Ginty is also impressive as the more pragmatic Haring, who deals as coldly with deciding to leave his long-term boyfriend (Miles Mitchell) because he's not up to the glamour of his new life, as he does with his own HIV+ diagnosis. The two artists grew to see each other as sell-outs: Haring's style of art for the people sees him opening shops and putting his distinctive cartoon figures on merchandise while the value of his original artworks stays low; while Basquiat frowns at this but plays the more traditional art market game himself, teaming up with art dealer Mary Boone (Lisa Caruccio Came) to woo wealthy collectors and sell each piece for thousands - which in turn offends Haring's populist sensibilities. A picture builds of two massively flawed but fascinating characters.

But this is where the play lacks focus: I'm sure there's an entire play to be written just about the relationship between Basquiat and his Haitian father (Joseph Mydell,) charming on the surface but with a dark side that may have caused many of his son's problems, and revealing a surprising fame-hunger of his own. And Haring's somewhat flippant appropriation of black and Native American identity and the sometimes aggressive reaction some had to his art as a result, is touched on but feels unresolved. Perhaps, like the show's publicity image which goes straight for the familiar image of the soup can, the play itself gets a bit too star-struck by Warhol, who might have been better used as a glamorous cameo appearance - instead the middle portion of the show gets rather distracted with him. I would have liked to see Ginty and Walters on stage together more, Haring and Basquiat's friendship sours too early for us to get too invested in it.

Still, there's some lovely performances, especially from the leads, and some funny moments along the way before the story's inevitable sad ending, both artists dying young. The interaction between the artists and Tommy Lexen's projections is underused but very well done when it is used, and there's no denying the play has a fascinating subject matter. Like the men it focuses on A Thousand Miles of History has some major flaws but also many compensations.

A Thousand Miles of History by Harold Finlay is booking until the 30th of March at the Bussey Building.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

1of these seven, four headed straight for the back row of seats, which I think is rude - if it's clearly obvious there's a sparse audience, surely it's only polite to sit at the front so the actors aren't staring out at empty seats all night

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