Bridge Theatre, London – until 31 December 2017
Broadcast live on NT Live to 700 cinemas on 7 December
ROISTERING AND REVOLUTION… There is a nice contrarian quality about Nicholas Hytner’s choice for his first production, in the dramatically beautiful new theatre he founded with Nick Starr. Outside is the new Ivy, a river view of the Tower and its bridge and grand modern signage. Inside a chic wide foyer, noble staircase, elegant balconies, leather-trimmed seats… and on this first night, frankly, anyone who is anyone in the social, high-financial and above all theatrical worlds. Dazzling.
Yet on the stage it is another London: Soho 1850, with Europe in restless disarray the young Karl Marx and a half-starved rabble of emigré intellectuals huddle in filthy rooms, plotting the downfall of the capitalist society and avoiding the newly invented police. Marx has an aristocratic Prussian wife at the end of her tether: Jenny von Westphalen is, he explains airily “ is not adapted well to abject poverty”. She frets over her sick child and the bailiffs hammer on the door and remove all the furniture. Which she could have redeemed, had the boozy wastrel Marx not taken her last family heirloom to a pawnshop, been chased as a thief, shinned up a wall onto a lofty rotating London roofscape, run back home and dived up the chimney.
Rory Kinnear’s Marx, unrecognizably hirsute, does more physical stuff than you might expect of a towering economic philosopher – diving into windows, chimneys, a cupboard, a chaotic duel and several low brawls, including a stonking one in the British Museum Reading Room which almost distracts poor Mr Darwin from his new mollusc.
As with Ianucci’s new film The Death of Stalin – set a communist century later – Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, in fact, have not needed to embroider much. Marx and his mates did find shelter here, and he did carouse and neglect his family’s welfare while he was blocked or unwilling to get on with some work on Das Kapital. His friend Engels (played by Oliver Chris with an exasperated decency that makes a good foil) did at least meet and record the really downtrodden industrial proletariat of Manchester: he has a fine speech about them which at one stage cuts hard across the rumbustious selfishness of Marx.
It is as much a personal as a political-historical story: Marx’s heroic wife (a strong, gentle portrayal by Nancy Carroll) and his equally heroic housekeeper Nym struggle to keep both the family and the flame of revolution alive, hoping that the English poor will understand it and rise. Others in the ramshackle cell, like the menacingly absurd Frenchman Bathelemy (Milton Yerolemou), want to do it faster, through terrorism and assassinations. Which feels eerily topical.
Threaded through the comedy (sometimes sitcom-broad, often bawdy, shading to darkness later) Marx spouts shreds of social theory, whether to a whelk-girl or while unaccountably stealing a gate. Kinnear gives him flesh whenever he can, for all the bawdy: he knows that “I have killed our marriage” and that the Manifesto, written a few years earlier with Engels, had already cost lives across Europe with the “virus of hope”. And there was a nice murmur from the stalls at “there will come a day when the markets have crashed. Money has eaten itself”. But it is family sadness which gets him working again in the final quiet lamplight (Engels obviously paid for the lamps. And paper. Genius demands such service).
The play sometimes felt a bit disconnected, between historic politics and the broad larking. But its revolutionary paupers got their applause from the not-at-all broke first night crowd. And I have a hunch that it will find its feet better, the laughs sharper, with a younger, wider audience. The rudery, the angry clever poverty and laddish mateship of the tale may strike its surest notes with the new theatre’s promised15 and 25 quid seats. All the sightlines, after all, are excellent, so the balconies are just fine. And Hytner and Bean know a thing or two about audiences for unlikely comedies after One Man Two Guvnors. I sense a Cunning Plan. The launch was grand, but it’ll be the run that proves it.
box office 0843 208 1846 http://www.bridgetheatre.co.uk to 31 Dec
The play will be broadcast live on NT Live to 700 cinemas on 7 Dec