Review: NT Live Young Marx

8 March 2018

I have been waiting my whole life for a comic play that answers the question: was Friedrich Engels fuckable? The latest production from London’s National Theatre, Young Marx, answers it quite conclusively, and tackles a slew of less-important questions along the way. As one half of history’s greatest revolutionary bromance, Engels (Oliver Chris) plays the cool companion to Marx (Rory Kinnear), whose instability threatens to prematurely abort one of history’s most influential works: Das Kapital.

Director Nicholas Hytner has taken pride in the historical accuracy of the play, at least in terms of plot points. “He lived a life that was one of comedy,” Hytner says in a pre-show interview. Perhaps as a poverty-stricken Jewish political refugee with four dead children who was constantly on the run from the police, Marx did not see it this way, but the comedy manages to still be affirming and engaging.

This isn’t a comedy about Marxism; the plot mostly centres around the aforementioned bromance, Marx’s marriage to Jenny von Westphalen (Nancy Carroll), and his begrudging friendships with a supporting cast of comrades. It’s stuffed full of ribald humour, turbulent emotions, and historical interest in equal part. But if you’re here out of interest in the labour theory of value and dialectical materialism, you will be a bit disappointed. Only a few jokes are dedicated to Marx’s actual philosophy. Rather, the play’s point is to place the mythic figure into a relatable setting, far-removed from the library shelves and citation lists he is usually found hiding in.

The direction is sympathetic to Marx and his ideals, although his selfishness tempers pure adoration. He is boorish and often drunk, although certainly capable of kindness, and honest to his values—such as when he invites a gravedigger to attend his infant son’s funeral in an emotional scene, telling her that “no-one should be ashamed of their working clothes.”

There is a substantial patriarchal undertone, particularly in Marx’s family life. Von Westphalen is beholden to Karl, despite his [spoiler] fathering of an illegitimate child with their housekeeper Nym (Laura Elphinstone) [/spoiler], and his poor efforts to provide for the family financially, most often relying on the kindness of Engels to feed them. Von Westphalen shares similar sentiments with Engels, describing her relationship with Marx as one of nuanced necessity, and affirming the vital importance of his work despite the personal toll it takes on her.

The whole production plays out on an ingenius set, constructed as a dollhouse-like box with folding doors, which rotates and opens to reveal a pawnbroker, a library, a street corner, a meeting-hall, a prison, and a desolate moor. The play is reinforced with dramatic modern music during transitions, and the impressively precocious piano-playing of the young Jenny Marx (Dixie Egerickx/Matilda Shapland/Harriet Turnbull) during several scenes.

I am the youngest person in the theatre, but I can see no reason why this shouldn’t be a popular production among young people. It’s accessible, bawdy, and thoroughly relevant. The 2’20” runtime is really not as daunting as it sounds; the jokes just keep coming, and every character is uniquely loveable. The idea of a play being distributed internationally as a film might give Marshall McLuhan an aneurysm, but I promise, you will be okay.


Young Marx is in cinemas now.

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