Young Marx

Richard Bean and Clive Coleman
National Theatre at Home
Bridge Theatre

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Rory Kinnear (centre) and the Cast of Young Marx Credit: Manuel Harlan

Young Marx was commissioned by Nicholas Hytner to open his new Bridge Theatre.

Rather than playing it safe with Shakespeare as he had by programming Henry V on taking over the National, the venue’s inaugural Artistic Director placed trust in a series of old friends working on a new play under his own direction.

Richard Bean is one of the country’s most popular playwrights, having a rare talent when it comes to combining comedy with serious subject matter, while Rory Kinnear, Oliver Chris and Nancy Carroll had all worked successfully at the National during the Hytner tenure.

Bringing together a biographical story of Marx, Engels and their circle with broad comedy that reached into screwball and slapstick was asking a lot. Additionally, bringing in elements of Marxist political and economic theory alongside a torrid family drama really pushed the boundaries of what can be achieved on a stage in just under two hours.

However, the result is often extremely funny, occasionally highly dramatic and encapsulates enough of the theory in a series of digestible set piece speeches to enlighten audiences at a time when, for most, Marxism is used to describe a broad range of left-leaning ideas, often insultingly.

Richard Bean and his collaborator Clive Coleman rarely pull their punches in a script that shows Karl Marx, played by Rory Kinnear, to be a lazy, selfish prevaricator, far from the hero of the working classes that one might have expected.

Living in Soho, his treatment of his wife Jenny, played by Nancy Carroll, and their children is often execrable, starvation only kept at bay by financial support from wealthy industrialist Engels, characteristically portrayed by Oliver Chris, and a young woman who deserves to be sanctified, Laura Elphinstone taking the role of Nym.

This latter figure is housemaid and muse, support and lover as well as an important political theorist in her own right.

As always with Richard Bean, at times, the comedy can overwhelm the more serious elements, but watching this play a second time online calmed some of this critic’s reservations on first viewing, providing an opportunity to appreciate many of the subtleties, such as a slapstick battle in the British Library Reading Room, ignored by an oblivious Charles Darwin, an unlikely intellectual bedfellow for Karl Marx.

In particular, the family drama and the hilarious one-liners still hit their targets with regularity, but the caustic commentary on capitalism and the harshness of poverty in mid-19th century Manchester becomes more apparent on reflection.

Young Marx is not a perfect play, but with a superb cast led from the front by Rory Kinnear as the self-pitying genius manqué, it deserves to be seen more widely, which is one of the purposes and joys of the National’s online project.

National Theatre at Home is available on subscription, broadcasts in HD, costs only £9.99 for a month or £99.99 for a year.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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