Once you’ve been the head of one of the most respected and well-known theatres in London, what can you possibly do next? Well, apparently you take everything you’ve learned, head beyond the Southbank and Bankside to create your very own purpose-built theatre amidst the new bars and restaurant around City Hall. After announcing the project more than a year ago and frequent pictorial updates on its construction, Nicholas Hytner’s new Bridge Theatre is now officially open for business next to Tower Bridge, with its first play Young Marx already looking extremely solid ahead of its press night later this week.
As much charm as there is in our Victorian theatres, their size and facilities were built for a different age, so a brand new theatre means more comfortable seats made for normal-sized people, the chance to create decent sight-lines from every vantage point, and most importantly more than two ladies toilets per floor. Happily, the Bridge has all these things, in fact the auditorium is almost a carbon copy of the Dorfman at the National, only bigger, and despite the crush in the foyer, this has the potential to become a great social and cultural space.
Its inaugural performance is a new play by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman about the less well-known younger years of Karl Marx. We think of Marx these days as an old man with a big beard writing dry economic theory and giving 70s historians concepts to try and fit the past into. Bean and Coleman’s vision couldn’t be further from this image, and instead this Marx is a bit of a scoundrel, careering around Soho, pawning anything he can get his hands on, hiding from the bailiffs and exasperating his long-suffering family.
Marx, his wife and two children are hiding in 1850s London from their Prussian persecutors unable to ever return to Germany. Living in penury in a shabby two room apartment in Soho, Marx has more pressing concerns; he’s expected to start an anti-capitalist revolution but can’t write while he spends all his time trying to quell the violent tendencies of The Communist League, visiting all 18 pubs on Tottenham Court Road and hiding in a cupboard. But when secret information is revealed, Marx must uncover the spy in his midst, and, with the help of his old friend, Engels, finally write his masterwork currently titled ‘Economic Shit’.
Young Marx is an enjoyable cartoon caper, a delightful farce that also manages to be occasionally quite touching. Based on real events in his life, his Marx is a not-quite-so-lovable rogue who will make the audience despair as they’re laughing at each self-inflicted mess he gets himself into. But the play’s success is surrounding Marx with a colourful cast of radicals in The Communist League, friends and family that give a flavour of his life and the impact of his self-centred behaviour on those around him. Happily, this also includes two well-constructed roles for the women in his life, his wife Jenny and their maid Nym.
Bean and Coleman’s play also avoids many of the tiresome Dickensian clichés which have become such a lazy shorthand for any aspect of poverty in the Victorian era, giving the whole thing a thrumming life of its own, allowing it to maintain an infectious energy throughout, which Mark Thompson’s hyper-real revolving set supports extremely well. He may live in a little more than a squat, consorting with pawnbrokers and vagabonds, but Marx feels like a thoroughly modern man, deeply flawed and entirely human, but with a force of nature, a chemistry that, despite their better judgement, has other people dancing to his tune.
And this feels really relevant to the way we glorify and accept the failings of our own celebrities, with poor behaviour and diva demands written-off as “artistic temperament”. The idea that someone’s genius – be it intellectual or creative – is worth the price of their arrogance, entitlement and inability to accept that codes of decency apply to them, is one that feels especially pertinent at the moment in the wake of revelations about the misuse of power by TV personalities and Hollywood moguls that have come to light in recent years. In these examples, and beneath the comic gloss of the play, is an important central question about what we are and should be willing to forgive just because someone happens to sing or pontificate especially well.
As Marx, Rory Kinnear balances all of these competing characteristics, offering a portrait of a reprobate economic theorists whose every thought is about anti-capitalist revolution or having a good time himself. Even preparing breakfast for the family he lets down again and again, becomes a lecture on the provenance of a sausage. But Kinnear’s skill is in wrapping all of this in a perfectly-timed comic shell, keeping the tone light and breezy most of the time, and landing the more emotional moments at just the right pitch.
Marx is not a man you’re asked to love or even respect, and Kinnear shows the audience that every hilarious encounter is also an example of him betraying, using or avoiding someone to get what he wants – if he was any richer he’d be an out-and-out cad. While Kinnear has focused on serious European theatre in the last couple of years with The Trial and The Threepenny Opera, it’s clear this role is the most fun he’s had, and arguably his best, since he played Iago at The National. He relishes every ounce of his carefree rascal, delivering put-downs with a whip-like severity and trampling over his loved ones… but then he has the rights of the worker to defend.
His partner “Freddie” Engels, played with charm by Oliver Chris, is a more responsible and self-aware contrast in the jokey Vaudevillian partnership of “Marx and Engels, Engels and Marx”, a frequently repeated refrain that binds them together. Engels role is largely to protect Marx from himself and clear up his messes, and the believable brotherhood Chris and Kinnear create is vital in accepting some of the plot’s later twists. But, Chris makes Engels more than a footnote in the story of his more famous friend, giving him both a lothario’s existence and a conscience that become the voice of reason in the play.
Again and again, Engels tries to encourage Marx to write, recognising his superior talent for expressing their political beliefs and inspiring others. His own background, sent to work in his family’s Manchester factory but with independent means, is used to show his own devotion to his friend and the sacrifices he is prepared to make to ensure Marx becomes the great man he is supposed to be, and Chris’s Engels is a sympathetic figure while also making the most of the comedy double-act.
Nancy Carroll’s Jenny is a suitably conflicted wife, furious with her husband’s lack of respect and failure to provide for his family, while also still being drawn to his revolutionary charisma. She’s part of the faction that meet to debate ideas and offers input into his writing, all the while remaining desirable to potential lovers. Laura Elphinstone as maid Nym is equally part of the family, supporting husband and wife while becoming increasingly drawn into the household dramas with a convincing sense of her own agency. Crucially, you believe both women exist when the men are not around.
It’s a large cast that add texture to a catalogue of comic incident among London’s immigrant population, easing us between Bean and Coleman’s delightfully surreal scenarios including a gloriously modern line for a policeman who is thanked for not hitting Marx and Engels when he catches them urinating in Soho Square, saying he’s been on a course. Interestingly, the family use German accents when speaking to someone English but the rest of the time talk in their own variations of British voices, adding to the idea of Marx as a bit of a geezer and neatly navigating the line between the perception of them as a West End foreign colony, but also that they’re just like us.
The Bridge Theatre’s opening performance is, then, a very entertaining night at the theatre and Hytner’s smooth direction ensures that the 2.5 hour run time doesn’t seem enough. It’s a bold and significant decision to christen this new space with a fresh play rather than a well-known classic, but one that pays-off handsomely. And with tickets from as little as £15, the trip to Tower Bridge is all the more worthwhile. Bean and Coleman will irrevocably alter your idea of Karl Marx with this charmingly cartoony comic caper; Communist economic theory has never been this much fun!
Young Marx is at the Bridge Theatre until 31 December and will be broadcast by NT Live on 7 December. Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1