The impact that Karl Marx has had on the course of history must be amongst the most significant of any human being of the past few centuries. His concepts of communism and the dismantling of capitalism triggered a succession of revolutions, brought down the power structures of many imperial countries and influenced many major wars over the last 100 years. His writings in ‘The Communist Manifesto’ and ‘Das Kapital’ are powerful and important political and philosophical texts still debated today, and Marx’s shadow looms large as both a symbol to inspire and revile.
All this makes him an odd choice for a raucous period comedy, but this is exactly what the team behind the National Theatre’s smash-hit ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ (from director Nicholas Hytner and writers Richard Bean and Clive Coleman) chose as their follow-up, a look at the life of Young Karl Marx (Rory Kinnear) living in Soho in London in 1850 with his wife Jenny Von Westphalen (Nancy Carroll). As a young man, Marx was a troublemaker and scallywag, and how his younger, poorer self contrasted with the icon we now know seemed to offer the team the perfect setting for a comedy both intellectual and slapstick. For Australian audiences, we have the opportunity to see the work for ourselves thanks to National Theatre Live.
The problem is, ‘Young Marx’ is hardly worth the effort. Rather than offering a fresh and dynamic portrait of a burgeoning historical figure, an important political movement and a world on the state of social collapse, Hytner, Bean and Coleman have tried to fit a square peg through a round hole and make this story into something it isn’t. The historical facts around Marx’s youth might be funny in anecdote, but their recreation here is staggered, rambling and almost entirely without intent. The story feels like a series of badly-written sketches with a flimsy plot attaching them, the often infantile jokes landing like bricks on concrete, not helped by Hytner’s complete lack of understanding of comedic timing or rhythm. Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels (Oliver Chris) are interpreted as a lame comic duo, something that makes no sense at all, even within the framework of the play. ‘Young Marx’ bursts at the seams with needless excess, resulting in a lack of focus and intent that cripples any great moments it might have to offer.
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Sentiment is cheap and jokes are cheaper, characterisations are sketched at best and we’re introduced to so many forgettable characters that the whole thing starts to collapse under the weight of itself. Hytner’s direction is woeful, dragging what is already a long play into a nearly three hour ordeal with its lack of rhythm, pace or energy. Pointless fight sequences are sloppy and embarrassing, the use of music is incongruous and the lighting is so dark that you wonder whether this is supposed to be a comedy or a penny dreadful. Some of the performances are solid - it would take a lot for Rory Kinnear to be dreadful in anything, and his natural charm goes a long way to saving the experience. Oliver Chris, Nancy Carroll and Laura Elphinstone as their maid Nym also do good work, keeping their head above water with the terrible script. The supporting cast however are dead on arrival, directed towards overblown performances to the point of being obnoxious. There’s barely a line in this production that isn’t shouted, so that at the two hour mark, you’re begging for someone to turn the sound down.
There’s also something fundamentally bizarre about a major piece of popular entertainment full of theatrical tricks and excess depicting a man so hell-bent on the destruction of capitalism. Communism is treated with the same starry-eyed ignorance that physics was treated in ‘The Theory of Everything’, allowing the audience to smugly and knowingly nod at something neither they nor the production understand, and something that is so against the comfortable bourgeois lifestyle they hold dear. There is certainly capacity for a really great biting comedy in here, but fart jokes and watching Charles Darwin do a shitty magic trick for some unknown reason aren’t it. The production also doesn’t seem too concerned with representation, once again making the only actor of colour a token supporting presence, and a creative team almost entirely devoid of women. To be honest, there isn’t much about this production that doesn’t feel ill-conceived, ignorant or infantile.
There is certainly capacity for a really great biting comedy in here, but fart jokes and watching Charles Darwin do a shitty magic trick for some unknown reason aren’t it.
All the more unfortunate then that it’s one of the better National Theatre Live presentations. ‘Young Marx’ is the first production at the new Bridge Theatre, which was designed to accomodate the NT Live format. It shows, with ‘Young Marx’ looking wonderfully theatrical and cinematic all at once. A lot of care has been put into designing this particular experience, and while the production itself doesn’t deserve it, it’s a notable feat nonetheless.
To be blunt, ‘Young Marx’ is just a really stupid play. It isn’t very funny, it isn’t very interesting, and it isn’t an effective portrait of the man himself or his politics. A comedy on a figure like this has so much room to be both bitingly amusing and wonderfully dangerous, an opportunity to turn the politics on the audience and engage with them intellectually and emotionally (as Armando Iannucci does in ‘The Death of Stalin’). Instead we get endlessly crass humour, poorly executed slapstick, some flaccid moments of sentiment, and a shocking ignorance of the irony of its existence, all wrapped together in direction from Hytner that proves he’s still one of the most incompetent, out-of-touch and out-of-date major directors in the world. I really wanted to find something thrilling in ‘Young Marx’, but all I found was a sloppy, soggy mess.