FringeReview UK 2017
The hyper-flexible Bridge Theatre space boasts every arrangement though Mark Thompson’s reveals of a domestic interior with a few other spaces. Mark Henderson’s lighting slants through grubby Victoriana to stark day. Grant Olding’s music is larky enough to suggest Marx up a lamppost, with Paul Arditti’s sound designing ideal to open up a new theatrical acoustic.
It was a canny idea to kick off the first commercial theatre venture in years with a new comedy by the Marx Brothers – albeit set in 1850, and by a zany ancestor of Groucho’s band.
The Marx Brothers could be one of several duos including writers Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, or Karl Marx and Frederick Engels who insist on billing themselves as a double act ‘Marx and Engels, Engels and Marx’ on the upright as if cut from Stoppard’s Travesties. Or it might even seem the two Nicholases, Director Hytner and his theatrical venture partner Starr. I don’t think they’d mind that bracketing.
Collaborative it is anyway, none more so than in the wild tale of how the self-propelled prophet of Das Capital was forced to sit down and compose that massive tome (I’m convinced Miss Prism refers to the ‘modern instances’ of the unreadable Part 2, when she tells Cicely ’the fall of the rupee you may omit, as somewhat too sensational’).
Hytner’s way with such madcap quick-fire comedy is quite well-known – his Travelling Light of Nicholas Wright in 2012, also beamed live, had the same fizzing inventiveness as this – but it’s not celebrated enough.
The hyper-flexible Bridge Theatre space boasts every arrangement though Mark Thompson’s reveals of a domestic interior with a few other spaces like a dining space is a seamless parade of verismo versus sudden open spaces, one yawning open. Mark Henderson’s lighting slants through grubby Victoriana to stark day, with sidelights. Grant Olding’s music is zippy, jazzy and larky enough to suggest Marx up a lamppost, with Paul Arditti’s sovereign sound designing ideal to open up a new theatrical acoustic.
It starts with Mr Fleece’s pawn shop and Marx pawning a silver Argyll, his wife’s heirloom; he runs off when arrested for theft. It’s all true (except the jail happens later here) and every frantic scamper is recorded fact. Bean and Coleman locate the struggling early life of Marx, his long-suffering aristocratic wife Jenny, their maid and his lover Helena Demuth ‘Nym’ their two children and Engels in the nationally diverse world of refugees around Soho in 1850, all fled from the failures of Europe’s 1848 revolutions.
You’d think Bean and Coleman might use Shakespeare’s Henry VIII subtitle All is True, since event-wise it pretty well is. Transposing a duel to Antwerp for the sake of compression is about the greatest licence taken with facts. Happily the rest is of course invention: the words of speeches might be verbatim, but this is theatre.
Rory Kinnear’s comedy is often self-lacerating as in The Last of the Haussmanns. It’s a gloriously edged reading of selfishness and fundamental idealism sitting uneasily with insensitivity, sexual opportunism and quite often callousness. And indeed a well-founded but acutely hypocritical take on sexual mores and ruined reputations. No wonder he didn’t attend industrialist Engels’ wedding to a servant in later life. Engels lived the egalitarian dream Marx wrote about. Oliver Chris’s superbly adroit, alert second-fiddle low-status high-achieving fixer is a twirl of dandy and sheer guts.
He’s rather travestied too. Anyone who’s read a little of Engels will realize his quicksilver capture of the real conditions and in synthesis a genius of his own. So when we have thrust into his mouth ‘I write down what I see. I’m a beta-plus. You’re an alpha, a bona fide genius, you prick’ you know it’s meant to contrast dramatically. But you never see except in a few exchanges with Mr Fleeces pawnbroker (farce version) or Nym (braggadocio version actually corrected by her) the grain of thinking. It’s difficult. Bean and Coleman perhaps smuggle as much as they dare. Even Hytner famously asked Stoppard to tone down his The Hard Problem. One wonders how rationed they’ve had to feel themselves.
Still there’s plenty of Marxian application to contemporary living. Not just Brexit but Christmas – the writers would have known their time-slot. Christmas, Marx predicts in a few years, will become ‘a week-long festival of commodification’ which elicits weary cheers. Not that Marx eschews celebration, experimenting with a pub crawl for scientific reasons, converting pennies to piss and regarding scientific enquiry, encountering Darwin in the British Library where he begins a fight only Darwin with his barnacles serenely escapes. And did I mention the interest of the egg and pig’s commitment? The lecture of a sausage cooked in real time as surplus value is as flavoursome as the sausage actually looks.
Nancy Carroll’s Jenny von Westphalen (Mrs Marx) is as in all her work, wonderful in tracing an emotional arc from testy rejection at first, through fury to resigned love (she’s checking out every time but can never quite leave, even when she does for a lover she doesn’t sleep with). An aristocrat who here has married a penniless German Jew (it wasn’t quite like that, never mind) the flavour of their start in life – chased by creditors, bailiffs quoting Beethoven ‘Opus sixty-seven’ (Symphony No. 5) as they remove the piano might be summarised by Marx here as ‘a traditional Prussian affair – military uniforms, guard of honour, firing squad.’ She’s tested to the limit and finally dos something quite shocking to Marx’s traditional place of hiding in a cupboard every time trouble comes knocking (and once up the chimney).
Laura Elphinstone’s devoted Nym is gnarled miracle of love, desire and intellectual duty, able to challenge Marx as fully as Carroll. Here we see her turn around a public meeting with gritty dialectic and save Marx’s hide from violet revolutionary assertions though not a stupid duel which really happened.
Nym remained a lifelong adherent helping Engels with Marx’s posthumous papers and was at Jenny’s posthumous behest buried with her and Marx himself. When you consider she bore Marx’s child you realize how astonishingly Marx squandered the love of two extraordinary women who were able to love each other. And yet they remained a trio to the end. Carroll and Elphinstone bring out the despite and still of it with quiet heartbreak and glints of humour. And there is heartbreak.
Here though Kinnear’s Marx has to refine a nature through the fire of unexpected loss, and say with Wordsworth ‘a deep distress hath humanised my soul’ and which leads on to his finally committing to writing his magnum opus. Part Two is a darker deeper take after the madcap antics of the first half even though that ends with an accidental shooting. There’s many to praise in this fine ensemble piece. Prominent are Tony Jayawardena as a Doctor Schmidt, comically repellent but rather deeper, Eben Figueiredo’s impossibly devoted Konrad Schramm (with treasurable flapping) and William Troughton’s put-upon Constable Crimp.
To relate the Keystone Cops chases, and the one-liners is a joy forestalled by the admonition to go and see it. And so you should be able to, since even on a screen night over half the seats seemed empty. The quip from Crimp’s liberal constable letting Marx and Engels off their student-prank theft of a church gate ‘I’ve been on a course’ lets you know how much contemporary relevance seeps into the play, as all comedies must. The unmistakable references to Brexit and our current European population being less welcome than in 1850s won’t be lost on the smart set who see this, but it ought to be seen in schools where it can do the most damage to prejudice – and indeed a franker discussion of Marxism in today’s politically rejuvenated climate.
The Bridge Theatre is clearly the most exceptionally-designed space since the National, and in its commitment to new writing spells a boldness it’s delivering here – and a self-delighting brio that might even become a hallmark. But it’s the earliest days with half those seats empty. On such a day, with live screening too, it might be good to make up that promise: new writing needs penurious students, writers and actors, to fill those empty spaces. The Bridge should inaugurate a last-minute quota with drama schools, colleges and universities. So having had an on your Marx on surplus value, this theatre could really go.