The reader of The Communist Manifesto would have little recognition of the Karl Marx that emerges from this play. Young Marx focuses on the early life of a political German refugee living in squalor with his wife and children in 1850s Soho.
Nicholas Hytner, who is the director of the play and the one responsible (along with Nick Starr) for opening London’s new Bridge Theatre in which it is performed, promises at the beginning of the live broadcast that most of what we see is based on fact. If this is true, young Marx (and perhaps his older counterpart) was a self-indulgent and chaotic character, who spent a lot of time being thrown out of pubs, hiding in cupboards and chased across rooftops.
Most of the scenes take on a highly farcical quality, constantly punctuated by the arrival of police officers, debt collectors and revolutionaries. Marx’s interactions with family, friends, acquaintances and strangers are also largely antagonistic. He manages to seduce and impregnate his faithful maid, provoke a passionate outburst from his otherwise long-suffering friend, Friedrich Engels, and incite a scuffle amongst his fellow revolutionaries. It becomes quickly apparent that his wife, Jenny, the sister of a Prussian Minister, has given up her aristocratic lifestyle to be with Marx and support his radical ideology. Quick to provoke and make a mockery of her threats to leave him, Marx appears to have done little for her in return. Indeed, the marriage continues to deteriorate throughout the play, reaching a dramatic climax when Jenny finds that Marx has tried to pawn her only remaining family heirloom.
Despite his shortcomings, he is ultimately forgiven by his friends and family. Though he is unable to provide adequate medical attention for his sick son, we see glimpses of his charisma in the way he entertains his children with his quick-wit and horse rides around the grimy living room floor. Engels emerges as a much more amiable character, providing food and furniture for the family, and helping Marx navigate the various problems he creates for himself. Engels remains Marx’s main supporter, and it seems his primary purpose is to inspire Marx’s genius and encourage his writing.
Hytner describes Marx’s early life as ‘funny’, and the play’s comedic tones are set in the very first scene, when Marx attempts to pawn Jenny’s silver heirloom. Sceptical that such a poverty-stricken young man could possess something so valuable, Marx is accused of theft and chased from the premises, eventually hiding from the police in his chimney.
Though the play regularly relies on crude jokes as humour, it is genuinely amusing when the maid unknowingly stokes a fire under the chimney in which Marx is hiding from the police officer in his living room. The scene in which Marx attempts to persuade his wife that it was Engels, and not he who impregnated the maid, is also highly entertaining. Not only is it an excellent example of his manipulative power, but it is a testament to the extent the other characters humour him.
The prospect of reviewing a production on Marx was initially rather daunting, however knowing next to nothing about his early life made me an ideal audience member for a production intent on demystifying this historical figure. Did it succeed? Not quite. There were brief moments when his fiery politics emerged, such as when he predicted that an economic crash would bring about a British revolution, or when he objected to the violent tendencies of his allies, but they were few and far between. In the end, I left feeling slightly confused as to how the stumbling drunk on stage managed to become one of the pivotal philosophical and political figures of modern times.
Young Marx is on at Cinema Nova now.