On my second outing with the small group of theatre-going companions gathered together by the intrepid Elizabeth the play was Young Marx, written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman. It’s in London’s newest theatre, Bridge Theatre, beautifully situated near Tower Bridge. I met two more members of the group with Elizabeth for coffee in the foyer bar and free madeleines came with the tickets. A good start!
The seating design is unusual, with mainly stalls seating and narrow galleries at the higher levels. This means a clear view for all with no supporting columns in the way. It feels intimate but seats up to 900 and was packed for the Sunday matinee. We were just two rows from the stage, my favourite position to see how everything is working. The sets were especially effective, all constructed in a cube that revolved to provide various street exteriors and building interiors.
The play starts with Marx selling his wife’s family silver quite literally but being suspected of stealing it and running from the police. He’s thinking of giving up on his political writing and taking a job at Paddington Station, which could help him pay for a doctor for his son and might save his marriage, although it’s a bit working class for a woman from her wealthy background. She’s packing clothes just retrieved from the pawnbroker and is about to leave him.
If this all sounds serious, that’s not how it’s treated. The opening scenes are farcical and there’s much running around in true Keystone Cops style. Marx shins up walls, up the chimney in his home, and into a cupboard to hide from the police. He makes light of his wife’s packed case with jokes that are irritating snipes rather than laugh-out-loud humour. I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it but soon found it was an extraordinary blend of farcical humour, satire, ridiculous jokes my dad might have told, and serious scenes that could shock and be emotionally moving. Not an easy combination to pull off.
The promotional blurb describes Marx as ’emotionally illiterate’ and that certainly comes across. It also says he’s ‘young’ and ‘horny’, which is misleading. He’s in his thirties with a wife and two children and although he has an affair with a woman who loves him, this happens in the context of a failing marriage. He has important work behind him and his friend Engels is determined to get him writing again and to help him keep his family together.
There are parallels with the present day, with the Marx family subjected to racist taunts for being immigrants, and also arguing for and against acts of terrorism with their fellow activists. Marx and his wife both argue that they agree with the use of violence but they believe it would turn the British working class against them, especially if an attempt is made to assassinate Queen Victoria, who is loved by her subjects.
Some anachronistic comedy works well, including Marx saying at this point that there’s no need for violence to destroy capitalism in Britain as the banks will end up doing so much damage that they will leave the door wide open to change. Nobody could fail to see the irony of that belief. There are also silly anachronistic jokes, like the policeman saying he’s ‘done a course’ when Marx thanks him for not using violence.
The humour can suddenly vanish as the scenes become serious, such as Engels describing the living conditions of the poor in Manchester. Marx has just described himself as ‘brutalised’, and Engels says he wouldn’t use that word for himself if he had seen Manchester. There was laughter from the audience, but then it became serious as Engels talked of the people working in the mills and living in crowded houses with mud and excrement deep outside for them to walk through. My own ancestors on my father’s side moved to Salford from Dublin at about the time this play was set due to new English laws destroying the Irish textile industry so this was a striking scene for me. They weren’t supported by the newly formed unions as the Irish were suspected as the cause for lower pay, with rhetoric very similar to the Brexit discourse these days. This isn’t mentioned in the play.
Two of the most successful scenes are a duel and a funeral. I won’t say too much about them so as not to ruin the plot, as the effect of the surprise on the audience is powerful. The duel absolutely startled me and was stunningly realistic even though I was close enough to see how it was all being done. In fact the fast moving scenes were all very well choreographed, which is impressive on the limited space of a stage. A fight breaking out in the British Museum Reading Rooms is also both funny and intricately arranged.
With the funeral the atmosphere is captivating from the moment the coffin is carried in to the moment the soil is shovelled into the grave to cover it. One of the weaknesses of the play, I felt, was a tendency to go for a cheap joke at every available opportunity, and this scene should have ended without a quip from Marx to his wife. He had finally shown some compassion and guilt and it would have been stronger to end on that note. There’s another point where his lover appeals to him with a dilemma and he responds with dialogue filled with jokes that aren’t funny. I could have done without some of the comedy as there were so many jokes and so many types of humour that worked well that the weak lines weren’t needed, or the ones that undermined a situation that required a different response.
Richard Bean also wrote a version of the Carlo Goldoni comedy ‘Servant of Two Masters’, and the style of Young Marx reminded me of the more recent Italian playwright Dario Fo, whose work I enjoy very much. I was left with the feeling that Young Marx would have been better without some of the trite jokes at significant moments, especially as they gave an impression of a Marx almost completely lacking in empathy. In each case it could be seen that he needed to protect his reputation and was balancing the importance of his work for the many against the needs of the few close to him.
In place of the less successful jokes it would have been good to see a style more like that of Dario Fo in Accidental Death of an Anarchist, where improvisation is allowed to let the director add jokes that are relevant to each day’s news. With the current sex scandals in politics this could have added a whole new layer to the treatment of women in Young Marx. Parallels between Engels’ description of Manchester, the treatment of the Irish there, and the similarity with the dialogue of Brexit could have been made. So I ended up liking the play but feeling there were opportunities missed and some jokes that could have been cut.
The acting was excellent, and the two children were particularly good. Design by Mark Thompson, direction by Nicholas Hytner and music by Grant Olding also contributed to the atmosphere and a feeling of energy and movement. Well worth seeing and the madeleines were fresh and tasty! Next up, The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre, unless Elizabeth slips an additional play in – she often does!