Monday, December 18, 2017

Young Marx: Catch as Catch Can

Laura Elphinstone and Rory Kinnear in Young Marx at London's Bridge Theatre. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

The big news on the London theatre scene this fall was the opening of the Bridge Theatre near London Bridge, the first new commercial theatre in the city in eighty years, under the artistic direction of Nicholas Hytner (who held that position at the National Theatre during its most recent prestigious period). The Bridge’s inaugural production is Young Marx, a new play by Richard Bean – whose One Man, Two Guv’nors was a gigantic and deserved hit for the National – and Clive Coleman. Hytner has directed a cast led by Rory Kinnear, in my estimation the most talented English actor of his generation, as Karl Marx, Oliver Chris (memorable in One Man) as Frederick Engels and Nancy Carroll (last seen in the splendid Woyzeck at the Old Vic) as Marx’s Prussian-aristocrat wife Jenny Von Westphalen. I caught the show in the NT Live series a couple of weeks ago, and I had a pretty good time. It’s juicy and sumptuous, and the action on Mark Thompson’s revolving Dickensian set (the setting is 1850 London) moves at a clip, though Mark Henderson has underlit it excessively. The ensemble is flawless, with all three of the principal actors cavorting in high style. The problem is that it’s not a very good play.

Bean and Coleman wanted to capture the vibrant political atmosphere of Soho, where radicals from the continent found refuge in this corner of scrappy, crowded London, as open a city in the middle of the nineteenth century as one could imagine. And they wanted to portray Marx in his early thirties as the scamp he apparently was, a scrounger and petty thief who eternally tried the patience of his elegant – though equally politically committed – wife. In the play he hides in the kitchen cupboard whenever the police pay a call. He pawns his wife’s argyle diamond, then feigns ignorance when she discovers it’s missing. And though he’s jealous enough of the attentions of August Von Willich (Nicholas Burns) toward Jenny to let himself be drawn into a duel with him, he has a one-night stand with their devoted maid Nym (Laura Elphinstone) that results in pregnancy, then persuades Engels, his best friend, to pretend to be the father and agree to marry her. (Engels’s reluctance makes him hopelessly clumsy at pulling off this ruse, and Jenny sees through it.) All of these escapades justify the idea of framing this wild, catch-as-catch-and, to most of us, utterly unexpected part of Marx’s life as a farce, played broadly but skillfully and very fast, with the charismatic Kinnear’s diverting Marx scaling the rooftops of the city to sprint from flat to pawnshop to cop station to political meeting (always loud and contentious).

But if Young Marx is supposed to be a raucous comedy, why does it keep stopping dead so the characters can deliver fervent political speeches? Bean and Coleman want us to see Karl Marx not as the famous gray-bearded philosopher spouting bons mots but as a flesh-and-blood comic creation, yet they aren’t committed to their own dramatic conceit. And in the second act, after the death of one of Marx and Jenny’s children, the tonal shift – which might have been a true theatrical coup if the bottom fell out of the play and left us devastated, along with the characters – is so wobbly and the treatment so wet that it’s as if we’d been airlifted in some other play altogether. Young Marx is a terrific idea, but Hytner’s staging and the energetic cast have to cover for the dramaturgy.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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