Young Marx at The Bridge Theatre - NT Live
The Bridge Theatre
by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman
The Bridge Theatre, London
NT Live - 7 December 2017
For anyone who has never really looked beyond the blue plaque commemorating the family home of Karl Marx in London's Soho district, there is actually a world of intrigue, drama, farce and tragedy associated with the significant period of time that the author of 'The Communist Manifesto' and father of revolutionary socialism spent there while writing one of the most significant and influential works of political and economic philosophy, 'Das Kapital'. You can see the attraction then, and a possible rationale for a play based on the life of the younger Karl Marx, humanising the more formidable image we have of him from those huge bulky commemorative statues, showing perhaps something of the real man struggling to deal with real world problems; that his ideas and views were not just some theoretical ideals, but grounded in real experience of poverty and a desire to change the world.
Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, who previously collaborated on the successful West End comedy One Man, Two Guvnors, manage to incorporate many extraordinary true-life incidents that Karl Marx and his friend Friedrich Engels are known to have been involved in at this time into Young Marx. The expectations of blending true-life drama with comedy and associate that with formative experiences that will go into 'Das Kapital' and other important writing done during this period are set high at the start of the play which opens with a scene showing Marx as a young man in London trying to sell his wife's inherited silver gravy warmer to a pawn shop. Suspected of trying to sell stolen property, the police are called, Marx does a runner, and is eventually tracked down, arrested and spends a night in prison.
This opening scene sets the tone well, playing it brilliantly as high farce while at the same time succeeding in putting a human face on Karl Marx as a struggling German exile with a young family who has arrived in London in 1849. It also manages to show something of the experience of injustice that is visited upon those of the working classes struggling to survive at this time, while hinting that at the kind of threat that someone of Marx's outspoken condemnation of the practices of capitalist society poses to the establishment. In addition to just making a living, Marx, Engels and the doctor who is caring for their ailing son Guido 'Fawksey' Marx, are continually on the lookout for Prussian spies who are a permanent presence in Dean Street keeping an eye on the dangerous exile who has been chased out of most of Europe.
The material is definitely there then to provide a drama of comedy and intrigue that has historical and social context. Subsequent incidents involving a duel on Hampstead Heath (which actually took place near Antwerp), a punch-up in the British Library and bedroom farce involving Marx getting their live-in maid pregnant, but for Bean and Coleman the emphasis is firmly on the comedy. That can actually be a good way of getting across the human elements of Marx's early life and the political and social - and it certainly is a good way of making the audience aware of this little-known but fascinating and important moment in history - but judged purely in terms of a comedy, well... what Bean and Coleman make of this potentially great material is just not that funny.
The situation provides plenty of material and opportunity, but the jokes are often obvious and fall flat. Young Marx tries to show in a few places how prescient Marx would be in foreseeing capitalism would change the world - a joke about Christmas becoming a "week-long" spree of spending with little religious sentiment even showing how much he underestimated the grip that consumerism would take - but it's never as funny or as clever as similar attempts to match the present with Shakespeare's view of humanity in the Upstart Crow TV comedy series. Not as funny or as clever as it thinks it is is probably the main problem with Young Marx, but then judging by the dumbed-down synopsis provided by The Bridge Theatre for this new play - "Broke, restless and horny...There’s still no one in the capital who can show you a better night on the piss than Karl Heinrich Marx" - it doesn't seem like it really had any such ambitions in the first place.
It all seems to fall apart around the handling of Marx's affair with Nym, and her pregnancy. The Communist visionary's efforts to hide the truth from his wife, and get Engels - who has never shown the slightest romantic inclination towards the young woman - to take responsibility for it, provides plenty of scope for humour. And it is funny, but it's very obvious, dumbed-down comedy that involves Engels shouting "You fucked your maid!" loudly in the British Library and calling him "You complete bastard!" every other line. The punch-up in the library with Charles Darwin present is very funny, but it's slapstick farce. Once the revelation to Jenny is out of the way - dragged out far too long - the drama does start to find its way again through the spy intrigue and the family bereavement, but even here, there's little that is revelatory or insightful either of Marx or of the struggles of ordinary people's lives.
Nicholas Hytner and Rory Kinnear seem to be happy enough to let the drama play out on this level, as a broad comedy farce with little that really engages with the human element. It's not an ambitious start for the Bridge Theatre, but the pre-show interview with Hytner and interval features provide a more promising philosophy and ethos, showing that a theatre that is flexible to the demands of modern drama, willing to take risks with the classics, open to new ventures and experimentation, and willing to incorporate technical innovations and reach out to a wider audience through HD broadcasts. It's hard to see this however as more than just an extension of what is currently being done in the National Theatre where Hytner was director up until 2015, but despite the reservations about the quality of their first production, Young Marx, such ventures are very welcome indeed.
Rory Kinnear - Karl Marx
Oliver Chris - Friedrich Engels
Nancy Carroll - Jenny von Westphalen
Laura Elphinstone - Helene 'Nym' Demuth
Nicholas Burns - August von Willich
Eben Figueiredo - Konrad Schramm
Tony Jayawardena - Gert 'Doc' Schmidt
Scott Karim - Mr Grabiner/Constble Singe