Young Marx

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Oliver Chris (Friedrich Engels), Rory Kinnear (Karl Marx), photo by Manuel Harlan

This is the first production at the Bridge, a brand new commercial theatre founded by Nicholas Hytner, formerly of the National Theatre. Hytner has commissioned a new farce from Richard Bean, writer of the West End and Broadway smash One Man Two Guvnors.

Their choice of subject is a surprising one – the family life of the young Karl Marx. The play is constructed like a traditional farce – lots of door slamming, hiding in cupboards, smutty jokes and much of the play’s dynamic centring around who is sleeping with who. It has some genuinely funny moments and Rory Kinnear is a commanding presence as Marx.

The history will not be a surprise to those who have read Francis Wheen’s entertaining biography of Marx or the Friedrich Engels biography by Blairite historian Tristram Hunt or, better still, Yvonne Kapp’s excellent two-volume biography of Eleanor Marx.

The Marx family’s time in Soho - full of debt, spies, bailiffs and tragedy - is well captured. We first see Marx pawning a silver gravy warmer, an heirloom of his wife Jenny. “Do you know its value?” asks the pawnbroker, to which Marx replies, “Its use value or its exchange value?”

The script contains nods to the future such as predicting that the battle between capital and labour “will define the next century” and the gag “Russia’s never had capitalism – there’s more chance of a revolution in Windsor.”

At the start of the play Marx is disillusioned with the life of a poverty stricken revolutionary emigre. He has stopped writing his book on “Economic Shit” and is applying for a job as a railway clerk because he can’t pay the doctor’s bill for their son Guido “Fawksey”.

The play recreates a meeting of the Communist League. It feels like a typical political gathering above a pub. The discussion is about revolutionary terrorism. Emmanuel Barthélemy – portrayed as a comedy Frenchman – is for it. Jenny, Marx and Nym – Helene Demuth, family friend, housekeeper and political ally – are against.

Jenny argues for political education of the working class. Marx insists, “We aren’t waiting, we are making preparations”.

Nancy Carroll and Laura Elphinstone do well to make Jenny and Nym rounded characters with insight and conviction.

Oliver Chris plays Engels as a louche man-of-the-world with a large sexual appetite. His one saving moment comes when he gets animated about the brutal treatment of workers under capitalism. He describes the conditions in Manchester having seen them at first hand working as a clerk in his father’s cotton mill. He continues there in order to finance the Marx household.

Richard Bean and his co writer Clive Coleman are obviously very fond of Marx and sympathetic to the politics. But the insurmountable problem with the play is its tone. The cheap gags, innuendo and tittle-tattle storyline belittle the figures, reducing everything to the level of Carry On. Then towards the end of the play there is a jarring moment of tragedy.

Oddly there is also a film called Young Marx awaiting a UK cinema release. That is a more serious, though esoteric, proposition from radical Cuban filmmaker Raoul Peck. It is interesting to note that, however mixed the outcomes, artists still see these giants who struggled to turn society on its head as subjects relevant to today’s audiences.

Young Marx will be broadcast live to cinemas on 7 December by National Theatre Live