London has a brand new theatre in The Bridge – not only the biggest to be built here in 20 years, but the first new commercial playhouse of its size in 80. Dreamed up by former National Theatre chiefs Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr, it is a splendid addition: a flexible 900-seat auditorium designed by architects Steve Tompkins and Roger Watts, that manages to feel both spacious and cozy. It will, Hytner hopes, house a program of crowd-pulling new plays.
“Young Marx,” its first, demonstrates just how ambitious that plan is. Even allowing Hytner’s Midas touch, few new plays rocket to runaway success, and 900 seats is an awful lot to fill – twice that of the publicly funded Royal Court. Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s screwball comedy about socialism’s founding father only half succeeds. Great in theory, you might say; less so in practice.
The playwrights find Marx (Rory Kinnear), aged 32, living in a squalid Soho flat with his wife and children, procrastinating over “Das Kapital,” pursued by German spies and, more often than not, worse for wear. It’s a sort of sacrilege – and Bean and Coleman know it, gleefully tarnishing the socialist’s sainthood with the unexpected facts of his earlier life. Instead of the bearded sage, they show us the young buck: a “selfish, solipsistic prick” boozing through London with his old mucker Fredrich Engels (Oliver Chris), bedding his housemaid (Laura Elphinstone) and dueling on Hampstead Heath.
Really, it’s an attempt to show us the man behind the Manifesto, but that sits at odds with the comic-strip tone – no matter how snappily Hytner directs. It leaves the play caught between humanizing Marx and lampooning him. While it flags up the fallibility of a man who, amongst other things, scoffs at the idea of a Russian revolution (“more chance of a proletariat uprising in Windsor”), it also stacks the dice against this boorish buffoon, entirely neglecting his longstanding activism. Marx’s radicalism, here, is reduced to a life on the run, and it makes for an episodic play with a story built out of subplots. Procrastination isn’t exactly much of a plot.
What “Young Marx” makes clear is that his ideas were couched in experience. While Engels witnesses destitution in industrial Manchester – actor Oliver Chris’ unshrinking account stops the farce in its tracks – Marx was living it day after day. We first meet him selling the family silver, and as an immigrant regarded with suspicion, he’s forever giving bailiffs and Bobbies the slip. That lends the play its knockabout comedy as Kinnear’s Marx is forever hopping into cupboards and darting up chimneys (“Take a seat,” he offers one debt collector, who does just that), but the seriousness of suffering is never far out of sight. Marx struggles to feed his children, nearly loses his wife (Nancy Carroll) and finds comfort in drink instead of in work. Kinnear finds the weathered robustness of a refugee whose first achievement, however intellectual, has been to survive.
That’s not just down to Marx alone, though, and if there’s a repeated motif here, it’s how much Marxism owes to others. It’s not only propped up by Engels’ work (“Yeah, yeah, I’ve read your book,” Marx sighs), but by his charity and support. Engels even steps in to save Marx’s marriage, grudgingly playing dad to an illegitimate son – and that’s nothing on Eben Figueriedo’s starstruck young student who takes a bullet for his idol at the height of a duel. The message is clear: the lone genius is a myth, the collective is all. It’s there in the portrayal of Marx and Engels as a double act, complete with their own jingle, to a comic encounter in which Marx unwittingly supplies Charles Darwin with a title as the British Library erupts into a brawl. The play’s final image has the whole family composing and editing a section of Marx’s masterwork.
Behind it all, though, sits the irony of progress. While Marx’s own economics were quickly discredited, it was capitalism that lifted the poverty that blighted his life. His destitute, soot-stained Soho, well evoked by the cobbles and chimneys of Mark Thompson’s revolving design, has become a wealth of bougie bars and restaurants today; some of the primest real estate in London. Yet, with all but the wealthiest being priced out, Marx’s notion of rising exploitation is regaining traction. (His old lodgings, incidentally, are now a private members’ club.) The point, perhaps, is that it takes balance: capitalism for all. The National Health Service, founded on good socialist grounds, might have saved Marx’s son, but it is stretched to its limits today.
Events with his push Marx to find his sense of purpose, and in that, Bean and Coleman argue for a reversal of his dictum “First as tragedy, then as farce.” In fact, as “Young Marx” suggests, things fall apart.
London Theater Review: “Young Marx”
Bridge Theatre, London; 900 seats; £95 ($125) top. Opened, 26 September, 2017 reviewed 24 September, 2017. Running time: 2 HOUR, 20 MIN.
A Bridge Theatre production of a play in two acts by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman.
Directed by Nicholas Hytner, Set design, Mark Thompson; lighing, Mark Henderson; sound, Paul Arditti; music, Grant Olding; fight direction, Kate Waters.
Nicholas Burns, Nancy Carroll, Oliver Chris, Logan Clark, Dixie Egerickx, Laura Elphinstone, Eben Figueiredo, Tony Jayawardena, Scott Karim, Rory Kinnear, Alana Ramsey, Sophie Russell, Matilda Shapland, Fode Simbo, Harriet Turnbull, Rupert Turnbull, William Troughton, Joseph Walker, Joseph Wilkins, Duncan Wisbey, Miltos Yerolemou.