“That’s what I need — unconditional love in industrial quantities,” says the young Karl Marx in the inaugural production at the new Bridge Theatre at Tower Bridge in London, and I’d say that unconditional love was pretty much what both the venture and the play deserved.
Nicholas Hytner, who for 12 years was the hugely successful artistic director of the National Theatre until he quit in 2015, has poured himself into a remarkable project — the first new commercial theatre to open in London in decades. And he has kicked things off with a winner — the most fun you could ever have with dialectical materialism and a vindication of Hytner’s bold decision to make the theatre a crucible of new writing.
The laughs keep coming in Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s pacy, witty and vivid portrayal of young Karl Marx’s precarious existence in 1850s London, his fortunes beset by difficulties of both of his own and others’ making.
I wasn’t sure that the succession of great comic scenes quite added up to a full dramatic arc, but thanks in large part to Rory Kinnear’s superb performance in the title role, there’s an emotional truth about Young Marx that is very satisfying — in particular in his relationships with his friend Friedrich Engels and his long-suffering wife Jenny, great credit going to Oliver Chris and Nancy Carroll in those roles.
Bean is best known for the Hytner-directed National Theatre hit One Man, Two Guvnors, an adaptation of an 18th-century Italian comedy, and that play’s element of farce is very present in Young Marx. But while there’s no shortage of hiding in cupboards and improbable situations — including a hilarious moment when chaos breaks out in the Reading Room of the British Museum — jokes also abound that are positively Stoppardian. “It only takes one intellectual to bugger up a railway,” Engels warns as Marx contemplates giving it all up for a career as a clerk at Paddington Station.
The situation is this. Europe is in ferment after the political uprisings of 1848, and emigres have flocked to London — Marx, then in his early thirties, among them. He lives in cramped near-poverty in Dean Street, Soho with his wife and young children, supposedly masterminding the revolution. But the authorities are after him, he has writer’s block — Communist block, you might say — and he has got himself into a very compromising situation with the maid (whom the Marx family could somehow still afford).
This Marx is so all over the place that you wonder how — some 15 years later — he ended up managing to produce Das Capital. His great redeeming feature is his love for his children. He is a fun dad of the first order. But he can’t settle to anything, and the family’s life is touched by tragedy.
“I’m a disaster area,” he despairs, one of a number of instances of modern turns-of-phrase that pepper the dialogue, but for me it was only “between a rock and a hard place” that did not sit comfortably. The blasts of rock-music riffs that accompanied the scene changes were another reminder that this was not a historical drama in any conventional sense.
Strong support comes from Tony Jayawardena as dodgy doctor Gert Schmidt and from Miltos Yerolemou, brilliantly funny as the revolutionary Emmanuel Barthelemy, and Mark Thompson’s design does a lovely job of conveying the clutter and claustrophobia of the Marx domestic set-up.
The theatre itself seats 900 but still feels intimate. A gorgeous steep-sided space of tremendous warmth, it’s more box-like than curved. The seats are a russet colour. Wood is to the fore. Hytner explained in a tour of the Bridge beforehand that he was seeking an amalgam of three theatres he really admires: the Royal Exchange in Manchester, the new Glyndebourne theatre in Sussex, and the Dorfman theatre, the smallest of the three auditoria at the National.
The foyer felt a bit crowded during the interval. There was a lack of places to put down your drink, and the catering arrangements are a little eccentric. Sandwiches and light snacks are sold only up until the start of the show. At the interval it’s all about the freshly baked madeleines, their lovely aroma filling the air.
Hytner and his collaborator Nick Starr certainly smelt an opportunity with the Bridge, and on the strength of this hugely enjoyable curtain-raiser, they look destined to succeed.
Young Marx will be broadcast live from the Bridge Theatre to 700 UK cinemas and many more worldwide on Thursday 7 December