Marx for Beginners

Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, Young Marx (Director: Nicholas Hytner, Br/dge Theatre)

ED162A8D-A237-4CCF-B0BF-2FB68E32609CWhen a big developer wants to land a huge estate in a city, they often offer an incentive to planners, such as affordable housing or cultural facilities. Near me someone has offered to build a hospital shell in return for turning the existing site into a housing estate. I don’t know, maybe there were no cynical reasons behind The Bridge, poised between London City Hall and Tower Bridge. Apparently this is the first new commercial theatre to be built in London in eighty years —although I don’t know where that leaves The Globe. Nicholas Hytner is the first artistic director, semi fresh from the NT, and who I think directed the version of The Tempest I saw at the RSC in about 1987.

It is thus either ironic or appropriate that their first play is a farce about Marx, stuffed full with lines from Das Kapital and giving communism a fair shout. There’s a line about Christmas will end up as capitalist blow out which got applause, even from the £65 seats. Go figure. (There was a good view from the back of Gallery Two, with Gallery Three not impinging on the sight lines. The rake is good, without being vertiginous.)

It is 1850 and Marx is living hand to mouth in Dean Street, Soho, with his wife Jenny, their housekeeper and Marx’s lover Nym and their two children, fighting off the bailiffs, the law and Prussian secret service spies. Fortunately, Friedrich Engels is there to bail them out. The heart of the action is the fear that Jenny will leave Karl, that Karl will abandon the revolutionary struggle for a paid job, the declining health of the son and a delicate matter that is obvious from early on. There is much opening and shutting of doors, climbing up chimneys and hiding in cupboards, and knocks at locked doors.

The ghost here is inevitably Tom Stoppard, although I assume that he’d be less generous to Marx. He did find some good lines for Lenin, in Travesties, to balance Tzara and Joyce, not to mention Henry Carr. Here the opposite is the case — aside from comic police officers, all of the characters are pro-communism, the only dispute being violent or nonviolent revolution. I did wonder if it needed the counter voice, even if my sympathies lie with Marx’s analysis of alienation. The interesting touch is the contributions made to Marx’s ideas and words being made more by the female characters than Engels. I think Stoppard would have made the farce sharper — and though it ends at an emotional climax, it perhaps needed bigger laughs. But then the life is not as funny as it might have been.

Rory Kinnear is excellent as Marx and Oliver Chris (series two of The Office?) forms a solid double act with him as Engels — the music hall turn of “Marx and Engels, Engels and Marx” being a highlight and another Stoppardian moment. A cameo from Charles Darwin — a spitting image of the older Marx — even offers a magic trick after a slapstick fight. They largely abandon Allo, Allo accents, save for when the characters are pretending not to be who they really are.

Bean and Coleman have fun with historical perspectives — the invention of GMT, the development of police procedure — and occasionally this fittingly pushes at the fourth wall. But they needed a few more jokes and the rotating central set obviously slows things down. It is, inevitably, a brave start to a commercial theatre, and whilst their next stop is Julius Caesar, it is good to see new plays being put on outside the subsidised sector.

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