Rory Kinnear, known for his roles in The Threepenny Opera, Othello, and television's Penny Dreadful, is set to entertain South African audiences as Karl Marx when the NT Live’s broadcast of the Bridge Theatre's Young Marx – penned by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, and directed by Nicholas Hytner – hits Nouveau cinemas on Saturday, 13 January 2018. When the opportunity to interview this inspirational performer about Young Marx presented itself, we jumped at it.
Since the year 2000, 39-year-old Kinnear has portrayed characters in theatre, film, radio, and television productions, but it is on stage where this two-time Olivier Award-winner finds himself most connected with his craft. Like most actors, Kinnear first fell in love with the art of acting at school, because that is where “you sort of get your first instinct of what it is like to be on stage and to tell stories as another character”.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Kinnear frequently finds his way back to the stage. “In a way it’s a bit like you are referring to the cradle of it all. I tend to find that if I don’t do a play for say two years, I start feeling a bit itchy and not feeling like I’m a proper actor anymore. There are very definite muscles that you exercise on stage that you don’t tend to exercise in other mediums. I guess part of it is making sure that your mental acuity in the theatre is still up and running, and part of it is the fun of doing it, the fun of working with a live audience, and the fun of putting a play together in rehearsals. Theatre is creatively quite rewarding. You get a greater sense of the ensemble – who your company are – and also the product just gets better the more you do it, specifically in a comedy like Young Marx. When you first start off in previews you are able to discover where the laughs are, and then you are able to hone them, extend them if you want – by and large just making sure where and what an audience is reacting to and maybe reduce and increase on that front. So, what’s always good about these NT Lives, these broadcasts, is that they always tend to be towards the end of the run. By then, not only is it very much in your own body memory as a piece, but it should be quite well oiled by the time the cameras are in.” South African theatre lovers are certainly in for a treat when the screening of this new comedy hits our cinemas.
In a recent interview, Hytner told Go London that when the playwrights started crafting at their vision, Bean initially researched the life of Marx with an opera libretto in mind. But, Hytner continues, as Bean learnt more about the philosophical man behind the economic and political theories, he soon realised “how chaotically funny his life was, and also desperate. In a short period after he and his wife arrived in London they lost three children – to poverty". "He was hopeless with money, his marriage was a complete mess, he had this extraordinary relationship with [Friedrich] Engels and his life was a series of wonderfully petty feuds and furious tirades."
It is not the bearded, wild haired Marx of Das Kapital that is the focus of this play, but rather a Marx so far removed from his prevalent historic image that his early life naturally lends itself to a farce rather than an opera. The play then, through the comedy of it all, demystifies Marx.
"It is about seeing the man when he first arrived in England," explains Kinnear, "and playing, to some extent, on what people know about Marx already and what their attitudes to Marx are”. Although the play does to some extent show that Marx “was avowedly non-violent in how he believed revolution should occur” and “believed that if you just wait for the conditions to be right, capitalism would eventually implode upon itself and then we could create a new society from the wreckage of it” in that it shows “the difficult genesis of Das Kapital […] it is also a play about a man and his family and how much they are prepared to sacrifice for an ideal". The audience meets Marx as he was in 1850, having lived in London for a year already, as "he's been kicked out of Germany, Belgium, and France through some of his own seditious writings".
"You know he is very much a person of interest around Europe, being spied upon, but he is also trying to live hand to mouth with very little money to look after his family. He's trying to get control of the communist league in London – a reasonably small hotchpotch of revolutionary émigrés all with their own theories and ideas about how to forward the next wave of revolution after the failure of the '48 revolution. He’s trying to avoid creditors, and drinking an awful lot, and through all this his friends and wife try to put him back on track to write what they know he is capable of. They are all at that time suffering, but suffering in the knowledge that the sacrifices they are making are worthwhile, as long as Karl finally puts pen to paper."
Marx's time in London and the characters associated with him were meticulously researched by Bean and Coleman to create a comedy that “largely takes place over 48 hours". "So time has been concertinaed a little bit in terms of when these events happen, but by and large all these events happen from various views – from unwanted pregnancies, to meetings, to pub crawls... There is a great deal written about Marx and his writing, but less that's about him as a person. I guess that's what the writers were more interested in; more who the person was that led to the writings, than what the writings revealed about the man."
It is this aimless yet idealistic, exiled 32-year-old German-Jew, literally and figuratively stuck in Soho, whom Kinnear morphs into on stage. Kinnear’s performance, as per Paul Taylor’s Independent review, shows him “on glorious form”, as he gifts audiences with a young Marx that is “believably both a high-powered intellectual and a greasy-maned, emotional disaster area”.
Doing so is by no means an easy feat, as young Marx may be brilliant, but he is also emotionally illiterate and almost childlike. “It’s an interesting balance to strike,” Kinnear says, “because obviously he is the central figure and you do want an audience to be with him a lot of the time, but you also can't ignore the fact that sometimes Marx was a pain in the ass and he drove his friends and his family mad with his relentless pursuit of what he believed to be right and true."
"He was deeply idealistic in the sense of German romantic idealism that you would negate yourself for the benefit of the greater higher ideals. Of course the practicalities of that is that you've got kids that are going hungry and a wife who has been brought up in Prussian aristocracy now living in a small room in Soho having to pawn their possessions to put some food on the table. So yeah, he could be needy, he could be bibulous, he could be rude, he could be incredibly solipsistic and egotistical, but at the same time there is a sort of underlying warmth to him that both as an actor and as an audience you have to hold on to otherwise an audience will turn against you."
Taking into consideration that neither Marx (so viewed) nor Othello’s Iago (for which role Kinnear won an Olivier Award for Best Actor in 2013) are easily likable characters, does Kinnear generally gravitate to these challenging characters because they are wittier? "Not necessarily”, he contemplates. “Being offered a good line is always good fun and you do quite well when the character is quick-witted, because an audience quite often responds well to it. Though it is fun to play the survivors and the top dogs, quite often it is as rewarding to play the oppressed or those struggling a bit with themselves."
Listening to his thoughts on this, one is left with the feeling that perhaps Kinnear is being too modest about the fact that he has a true talent for embracing characters whom audiences are not naturally drawn to and then unlocking the depth of these guarded, even unlikeable, personas on stage. In fact, Hytner has in the past expressed a belief that Kinnear is “one of the most exciting and versatile actors to have come along in years”, while Andrew Dickson of the Guardian has stated that his “defining talent is being indefinable”.
"I don't know,” he reservedly elaborates, showcasing that modest streak. “For lack of better words, 'I don't get to see myself' but I think what an actor's job is, is to find the underlying humanity and complexity of anybody that you are playing. And luckily enough I often get to play central characters that an audience is asked to follow the journey of throughout the story. In many ways, I have the privilege of being able to mine a character for greater complexities because there is more of him on stage. But I certainly don't believe in bad guys and good guys. I think it is about the hinterland that lies in between both of those – the fact that most people are driven by their own sense of right. It is an audience's job to judge them as wrong or right for it. But I do think that most people do things because they are convinced it is the right thing to do, however terrible those things are. You have to work out why they are convinced that path was the right one, despite the fact that they are manifestly wrong. It is usually interesting, and quite often (and certainly in Shakespeare) you are making guesses. Making those decisions is the fun of it."
Kinnear does just that when he, alongside “a cracking cast”, gives expression to Bean and Coleman’s new play, which he says “explores a side of one of the greatest intellectual thinkers of the 19th, 20th and even 21st centuries in a way that you have not necessarily imagined before” from a “funny and moving” perspective.
Book online through Ster-kinekor to see Rory Kinnear as the restless, witty 32-year-old revolutionary hiding in Dean Street, Soho when Young Marx screens as an NT Live offering at Nouveau cinemas from 13 to 18 January 2018. There will also be a screening at the Fugard Theatre on 25 February 2018 with tickets available through Computicket.