I was initially disappointed to notice no real celebrations of Karl Marx at 200 years old in Brighton this year — until I came across this wonderful piece of theatre, not very well advertised but officially part of the Brighton Fringe festival that took place throughout May.
Written by the late socialist author, playwright and activist Howard Zinn, this one-person play stars American actor Bob Weick as Marx returning from the afterlife (that he doesn’t believe in) to Soho in New York, to witness how the world has changed — and crucially, stayed the same — in 2018 (updated very subtly from its original release in 1999).
The fourth wall is instantly broken from the beginning, with Marx noticing and getting excited at the presence of the audience, whom he proceeds to engage with directly throughout the play.
The show captures all of the aspects of Marx’s personality that have been written about in various biographies over the years: his quick wit, his fiery temper and notorious intolerance to other writers of the time that he did not agree with; his love and admiration for his partner, Jenny, and his close friendship with Friedrich Engels, whom he long depended on financially (“Yes...capitalism saved us!”). And of course, his appreciation for a drink.
Weick’s wonderful performance as Marx begins by stating his purpose for appearing from the dead (“to clear my name!”). He then takes us on a journey through the story of his life, telling us the tragedy of the poverty and hardship that he and his family went through, while weaving seamlessly through his political journey as journalist, writer and activist. Crucially, he also argues the relevance of his writings today.
Pacing around a table with an array of current newspapers, Marx rants disdainfully at those who claim his ideas are “dead” and reads statistics of unemployment, poverty and incarceration in the US.
He gives examples of mass layoffs by big business and the continuing accumulation of the richest in the world at the expense of the majority.
He points angrily to the former USSR and the state capitalist countries, hammering those leaders as “dogmatists” who bastardised his works for their own gains. He takes us through the story of the great and tragic Paris Commune of 1871.
He quotes lines from the Communist Manifesto, corrects us on his writings on religion that are still so commonly misquoted, and endeavours to take us through the fundamentals of his greatest work, Capital.
All of this alongside the pains of his boils and tales of late-night drinking with the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.
Zinn manages to effortlessly combine the comical and the sober, engaging the audience with Marx’s personal story alongside an education in history and unwavering political argument.
Those unfamiliar with Marx will receive a healthy introduction to his ideas as well as an honest and heartfelt portrayal of the complex man himself (boils and all). Those more versed in his ideas will doubtless learn something too. An impressive feat for an hour long show. Go and see it if you get the chance.