With a set that evokes a grimy and threatening London of more than 150 years ago, a chuckle-a-minute text by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, and some truly delightful performances, YOUNG MARX, directed by Nicholas Hytner, delivers everything an audience could want from a dark comedy about the trials of an exiled revolutionary intellectual who finds himself unable to put pen to paper and support his family.
Karl Marx (Rory Kinnear) and his wife Jenny von Westphalen (Nancy Carroll) are holed up in a grim little Soho flat with their children and nurse, Nym (Laura Elphinstone). Herr und Frau Marx’s situation could charitably be described as ‘desperate’, as Karl cannot seem to commit to writing his manuscript and, in order to survive, the couple have been pawning family heirlooms and relying on the kindness of Friedrich Engels (played with charming, avuncular exuberance by Oliver Chris). Nym perhaps summarises the family’s state of affairs best when she says of the aristocratic Frau Marx that she’s ‘not adapted at all well to abject poverty’. A power struggle in the League of Communists and the presence of Prussian spies around every corner threaten to derail the expats’ lives even further.
The play’s sophisticated approach to quick-fire humour and farce allows the rather harrowing history under discussion to unfold without dousing the audience in misery and world-weariness. Kinnear’s energetic portrayal of Marx in his frequent moments of neurotic uncertainty serves to endear the as-yet-unbearded intellectual to a modern audience, whilst Marx’s fiery speech to the League makes it easy to understand how this particular German academic grew to inhabit the legendary status his name would later evoke. There are a few panicked moments at the very beginning, as Marx deliberates with a shrewd pawnbroker in a rather laboured German accent, but it soon becomes apparent that this manner of conversing is, mercifully, reserved for the Continental characters’ brief interactions with Londoners. The play also presents a tender depiction of Marx the Family Man, and Kinnear manages to fashion the disparate roles of stratospheric intellectual, fire-brand revolutionary, down-and-out emigré, and doting father into one seemless whole.
Carroll’s Jenny von Westphalen is elegant, quick-witted, and eloquently frustrated at her husband’s lack of progress. Equally gifted in the comic-timing department is Elphinstone, whose Nym does her utmost to keep the enterprise running (with the occasional snide remark to the master of the house). One of the play’s standout moments occurs, perhaps not surprisingly, when the mask of levity is lowered for a spell. Engels’s heartrending speech on the human suffering he witnessed in Manchester brings home the reality of the evil status quo Marx and Engels were so passionately intent on changing, and time seems to stop for a moment as the earnest young man entreats his fellow to complete his scholarly task.
No review of YOUNG MARX could be complete without making emphatic mention of the cleverness of Bean and Coleman’s writing, which somehow manages to incorporate jokes premised on economic theory, anachronistic jabs at the then newly-formed Metropolitan Police Force, comic interactions with incompetent spies, and a rousing musical number, all without it seeming overdone.
Even those with absolutely no interest in the origins of Marxist theory or the life of the man himself couldn’t help but be entertained —and perhaps even moved— by The Bridge Theatre’s YOUNG MARX, a cleverly composed and expertly executed piece of theatre.
YOUNG MARX was broadcast in South Africa as part of the National Theatre Live series earlier this year, and can be seen as part of the Fugard Theatre’s Encore season on the 25th of February. Tickets available through Computicket.