Tuesday 7 November 2017

Young Marx

Bridge Theatre, London
5th November, 2017, matinee

'Take a seat'

I’m reading Nicholas Hynter’s Balancing Acts at the moment. It is immensely readable, not only as an account of his time as Artistic Director of the National Theatre but also his time as Associate Director of the National, working on Shakespeare, his ebullience for new plays and why he wanted to be AD in the first place. He believes in the importance of theatre and that is conveyed persuasively in this book. This new venture with Nick Starr (with whom he worked alongside at the National) is a commercial one, yet it’s hard to stop comparing the Bridge with their old stomping ground. First impressions of the new Bridge Theatre? It’s in a lovely area which we haven’t really wandered around before: Dickensian streets meet modern architecture. The foyer is welcoming (as are the front of house staff) and light but the end of Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art comes to mind: it needs to be ‘purged of culture’ and all the pretension beaten out of it. The artisan bakery looked nice and was very tempting but it was amusing seeing most of the audience walking around with plastic cups full of little cakes with a name I’m not sure I’ve heard of before. The pretty lights, free water and sea kelp soap are all marvellous, but is it the sort of place where we can get our sandwiches out without being told off? The auditorium is fantastic and I’m not sure enough noise has been made over it. Perhaps it’s because London is spoilt for choice for theatres but imagine another city getting a new theatre like this. It has the intimacy of the Dorfman or Royal Shakespeare Theatre but the stage has the vastness of the Olivier and impressive technical facilities to boot. From the back row of the top tier, sight lines and acoustics were both good and I’m intrigued to see how it’ll look when the configuration isn’t end-on.

So what of Richard Bean’s and Clive Coleman’s new play? While his previous comedies have had substantial satirical bite, Young Marx plays out much like an extended sitcom episode involving stolen silverware, a botched duel, and love triangles aplenty. There’s a great scene in the second act where Marx tries to convince his wife that Engels and their maid, Nym, are having an affair which is pure farce and an absolute hoot.

Any tragedy is swiftly brushed aside and come the final curtain we’re left with a feeling that all ends well (whether history agrees or not). While this is enjoyable and non-taxing entertainment, the occasions where Bean does attempt more serious drama, such as the death of Marx’s young son, the tonal shift doesn’t come naturally and leaves the play feeling a little uneven. One minute we’re laughing at some scrape Marx has got himself into, the next we’re meant to be weeping at the untimely demise of a child. Such combinations of tragedy and comedy can often be the most acclaimed of both genres, the final episode of Blackadder Goes Fourth being a prime example. Perhaps it doesn’t quite work here because there hasn’t previously been any sense of true threat or jeopardy, and the ending is a little rushed with too many revelations occurring in quick succession, meaning we don’t have time to properly process Marx’s grief.

One of the more successful ‘serious’ aspects lies in the political underpinning of Marx and Engels; the script is peppered with jibes against Capitalism and frustrations over the reluctant and immobile proletariat (with the irony that we’re in a new commercial theatre which sits opposite the river from The City). Perhaps the most resonant of these political arguments comes when Engels chastises Marx for claiming he is ‘brutalised’ by poverty, Prussian spies, and a dogmatic and newly-founded local police force. Engels puts him in his place, reminding him what it really means to be ‘brutalised’ as part of a social class which is battered, broken and worked to the bone. But this seriousness doesn’t last too long, soon enough we’re back to toilet humour and innuendoes galore.

So far, you’d be forgiven for thinking Bean’s play is all ‘Carry On Marx’ but if I were forced to make a comparison I’d say it bears more resemblance, tonally and thematically, to the recent BBC comedy Quacks (coincidentally also starring Rory Kinnear), which similarly follows a group of pioneers and their attempts to revolutionise a stuck-in-their-ways society. Both comedies successfully juxtapose ‘true’ history with deliciously silly humour and a cast of likably caddish characters. Even Grant Olding’s anachronistically rocky soundtrack strikes a chord with the music featured in James Woods’ sitcom.

So, Bean has produced a genuinely funny and interesting romp. Hytner has shown off his shiny new theatre to a classy standard in his production. There’s nothing ground-breaking, but it’s all very watchable nonetheless, and a near guaranteed crowd pleaser. But I’m still left with the niggling question ‘what is it all for?’ It’s pretty clear that the play doesn’t offer anything new to say politically, socially or in any way that overtly resonates with today’s audiences. People might think that’s often the case with Bean but I’ve long been fascinated in his provocative humour and interest in national identity and northern working class settings. However, Young Marx isn’t the type of play I could see upon the National’s Olivier stage, despite the production being on a similar scale, because of the apparent lack of ‘motive’. But then I remember, this isn’t the National Theatre, and I am quite rightly reprimanded for any expectations that with the Bridge Hytner would be trying to emulate his tenure as AD at the NT. A lesson to be learned here in taking things upon their own merit.

So, if there is no political or social ‘stance’ (which seems pretty ironic given the source material), what does Young Marx do? For me it humanises a figure that has become abstracted to the point of obscurity through his philosophical legacy. Banish from your mind the perennial image of Karl Marx as an old, bearded man, here, as played by a breeched and bewigged Rory Kinnear, he is a young bohemian rogue; he boozes, he swears, he womanises, he fights, and by all accounts he is a bit of a layabout. The Yin to his Yang, Friedrich Engels, acts as his minder, paying his way, bailing him out on numerous occasions, and, aware that Marx is the genius of the partnership, his main duty is to chivvy him into knuckling down with his work. Bean has lifted the lid on the man (men) behind the theory, and by putting a face to it, an empathetic and entertaining one at that, it demystifies what, for some, is a rather stuffy and complicated political model. And that can’t be a bad thing!

Kinnear is by turns charming, grouchy, sly and infuriating, demonstrating that his clout as a comedic actor is just as mighty as his more dramatic side. He’s a true all-rounder, he even plays the piano! Matching him in wits, Oliver Chris is a scream as Engels. The two bounce off each other with easy camaraderie and much of the play’s warmth and humour stems from this partnership in which a great deal of mutual respect lies behind the blokey banter. In fact, I’d argue that the play would be better off titled ‘Young Marx and Engels’, so much is the play devoted to their friendship. Nancy Carroll as Marx’s wife, Jenny, and Laura Elphinstone’s Nym are solid, but as they are typically situated as the straight men to Kinnear and Chris’s double act they feel a tad underused.

The other undoubted star of the show is Mark Thompson’s ingenious and gleeful set. A London skyline is dominated by a huge revolving cube, which twirls, slides and magically configures itself into, by turns, a pawnbroker’s, a pub, the Marx residence, Hampstead Heath, a Churchyard and the British Library. Thompson has created an actor’s playground (although I imagine it’s a techie’s nightmare!), and Kinnear climbs, runs and jumps all over it, finding every nook and cranny to hide in and exploit for its comic potential.

While Young Marx isn’t going to set the world alight, it’s an assured and pleasing work to debut in the new theatre, ensuring that audiences’ first impressions of the space are, on the whole, very positive. It’s too early to say whether The Bridge will be a place for Hytner to produce hits as big as The History Boys and One Man, Two Guvnors, but let Young Marx be the first of many ‘Plays plump, plays radiant, plays preposterous, plays purgatorial, plays radiant, plays rotten – plays persistent’… and apparently the occasional musical!

Young Marx runs at The Bridge Theatre until 31st December and is broadcast as part of NT Live on 7th December.
Rory Kinnear (Karl Marx), Oliver Chris (Friedrich Engels), Harriet & Rupert Turnbull (Marx Children) & Nancy Carroll (Jenny von Westphalen), photo by Manuel Harlan

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