In a neat reversal of Marx’s famous saying, Act 1 of Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s play is farce, Act 2 is tragedy.
With a light wash of comedy, the very first play to be staged at Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr’s gorgeous 900-seat theatre looks at the years when a young Karl Marx lived in London. Lodging in a one-bedroom flat in Soho with his children, his wife, his housekeeper and the variously coming and going members of the German Workers’ Education Society, Marx – in Bean’s play – spends a lot of time getting drunk, pissing off his wife and refusing to finish his book, the work that would become Das Kapital.
Its tone is ‘Shakespeare In Love does the Karl Marx story’, and its design is pure Dickens: all fog and pantaloons. A big black cube in the centre of the stage rotates and doors open to reveal living rooms or pawnbrokers. It’s topped with miniature chimney stacks, smoking away, to create a darkly silhouetted skyline of Victorian London. Everything on stage looks thickly crusted in smog.
In the midst of this Victorian scape is Rory Kinnear’s scampering, penniless Marx. An opening scene sees Marx attempt to escape the police in a tightly choreographed, if a little sluggish, chase. Several times Kinnear has to jump into a cupboard or up a chimney to avoid bailiffs or other malefactors, and he bounces jovially off Oliver Chris’ statesmanlike Engels.
As well as some more serious discussions of capitalism, Act 1 is full of warming domestic scenes which emphasise how much love there seemed to be in the Marx household. The second act takes a more serious turn: dawn duels, arrests, family tragedies. And Jenny, Marx’s wife, bears the brunt of his nasty side. Nancy Carroll is great as the former noblewoman who gives up on wealth and status for a philandering communist.
For a while, this seems like a safe play with which to open the Bridge’s inaugural season. Richard Bean, Rory Kinnear – they will, with not too great an effort, pull in a fair few National Theatre regulars, the Hytner faithful, perhaps around middle age, perhaps around middle class. Jokes range from quickfire patter to grin-inducing toilet humour and, really, this doesn’t seem too taxing.
But as it goes on the play’s skin cracks a little, and it feels almost like a j’accuse for the Bridge’s audience, if not a mini-manifesto in itself. Are we the bourgeoisie that Marx is attacking? Is our economically-driven ability to sit in a swish new theatre watching a light comedy a direct result of capitalism?
And, with those questions being gently posed by Bean amid the wit and the trad elements, something trickier, ever so slightly more raw reveals itself under that cracking skin. It’s difficult not to feel that Bean and Hytner are hiding something quietly challenging under the surface.
Those complexities come to the fore in the more serious second act, when something tragic happens to Marx, and while he tries to come to terms with that vast gap between the theory of his ‘–ism’ and the possibility of living it in the real world. Indebted and penniless, Marx thinks so much about money and its perniciousness, but has none himself – and realises that he badly needs it. He can’t escape the system he loathes, because he has a wife and a child to support. So he’s bankrolled by Engels the cotton lord.
A great scene towards the end has Engels lay into Marx for being solipsistic, selfish, academic. Engels’ cotton company is based in Manchester, and he has seen first-hand the utter poverty of the people who work there, seventeen to a room, worked to the bone in order to make a profit for their bosses. Marx’s empathy with the workers, Engels seems to suggest, is purely theoretical.
Ultimately, albeit slowly and without too much fanfare, the play rouses the revolutionary spirit of the 19th century – the century that did more than any to enshrine basic rights for workers: labour laws, increases social spending, restrictions on child labour, the invention of unions, the improvement of conditions, the birth of the Labour Party…
Hytner’s great masterstroke is to stage, as his inaugural Bridge production, a play about labour and its fruits. The play is good, more than enjoyable, but the extraordinary achievement here is what that play is housed in. The fruits of Hytner and Starr’s labours, their monument christened with a subtle and comic manifesto.