London’s Bridge Theatre opened its steel and glass doors late last year on the South Bank of the Thames. The theatre takes its name from nearby Tower Bridge. The large foyer gives onto the walk along the Thames embankment and trumpets accessibility, modernity, and prestige in the midst of snatches of picture-postcard history. Directly across the wide river can be see the Tower of London. Just upstream is the show-offy post-modernist architecture of the City of London.
The Bridge is the first commercial theatre to be opened in in the British capital in eighty years. It was founded by Nick Starr and Nicholas Hytner—the former was long-time executive director at the National Theatre upriver a short work South Bank; the latter was for a dozen years that vital institution’s artistic director. The Bridge plans to produce mostly new plays, but ones that, however “cutting edge” as Hytner puts it, nonetheless enjoy a wider appeal that will, it is hoped, draw in first-time theater-goers. Hytner believes that his theater’s offerings can thrive in the competitive entertainment marketplace of London. The skyscrapers of the City rising above the turbid tidal waters of the Thames provide a real-life stage set for these artistic and financial strivings.
While still National Theatre in 2011 Starr and Hytner shepherded British playwright Richard Bean as One Servant, Two Guvnors. The team, now joined by co-writer Clive Coleman, have the honor and challenge of mounting the first production at the Bridge: The Young Marx with the Rory Kinnear in the title role.
The Bridge’s maiden production was screened last weekend in cinemas in the USA and across the world as part of the simulcast called National Theatre Live. Many, but not all, of the plays are staged there and broadcast across the world—the Bridge’s Young Marx being the latest example.
The antics takes place in London in 1850 in the aftermath of the failed continental revolutions of 1848. The characters spend most of their time in the destitute Marx’s dingy apartment, its furniture relentlessly being repossessed to pay off debts and even the save-it-for-the-rainiest-of days heirlooms pawned. Providing crucial influxes of cash is the tall, elegantly attired, and wealthy Friedrich Engels, played by Oliver Chris (who also did memorable turn in One Servant, Two Guvnors). Kinnear’s Marx is a neurotic, self-obsessed, linguistically and philosophically brilliant, and viciously hilarious ne’er-do-well who needs to get busy on Das Kapital but can’t bring himself to the task, expending his critical energies instead on discourses on the capitalistic truths embedded in a sausage supplied for the destitute family’s table by the flush, industrialist’s son, Engels.
The set, designed by Mark Thompson, vividly evokes the darkness and grit of mid-century London: looming specters; pubs to be crawled to and fought in; the British library to be brawled in, too with Charles Darwin almost involved in the contretemps; a duels fought on Hampstead Heath; and raucous revolutionary meetings all in the welcoming heart of London. Like so much these days emanating from British entertainment-makers of a liberal persuasion, the show wags its finger at the closed-minded of isolationist Brexit politics of the present
The play closed on December 31st, so NT live is false advertising that the original Marx might have found amusing. There are no weak performances among the cast, every encounter a comic gem. All the pay-offs and one-liner are nailed; every comic gesture calibrated for laughs.
One of the most interesting—and aggravating—aspects of the production is its use of music. Both Marx and Engels were musical. Engels could note down melodies he heard by ear, and was fascinated by music from all strata of society, but especially “classical” music—that concept congealing in the nineteenth century. The musicologist and wide-ranging thinker Mark Lindley has carefully surveyed this historical material in the socialist Monthly Review on-line in an examination of the both men’s journalism and letters. Not surprisingly perhaps, Engels was even fascinated by the inner workings of music, trying on occasion to improve his understanding of counterpoint and put into practice rules of complex musical production.
Aside from his work as an economist and historian conducted mostly over a career at Indian Universities, Lindley is also an expert on temperament and tuning; I spent couple days studying this with him some years ago. Lindley would have probably been pained by the out-of-tune on-stage upright that, until it is removed right out from under the young hands of Marx’s daughter, sits in the apartment and warms its confines with Biedermeier reveries of the Old Country, even while Marx lets fly a stream of stinging comic lines about extraction of his wife from the Prussian aristocracy. The clangorous wistfulness of the music is nowhere more poignant—if still comically—than in the strains of the first number of Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood). Indeed, the little girls plays opening piece from that beloved set, “Von fremden Ländern und Menschen” (Of Strange Countries and People): its title is an apt description of the Marx’s expatriate lives, and the melody longs for home.
Holding to be a misunderstood genius, Marx even bangs out the fateful opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—later the theme song of British victory against German in World War II—on the dilapidated piano shortly before it is lugged away by his creditors. Not only can Kinnear act, but he can play the piano, too. He and Chris’s Engels also like to ham it up in snippets of song etolling themselves the best double act—“Marx and Engels, Engels and Marx.” IN these moments the Marx in question is closer to Groucho then karl.
Kinnear’s Marx acidly comments that removals men have no idea about great music, but on their way out of the door with the symbol of domestic refinement and cohesion, one of the Cockney laborers identifies the tune as Beethoven’s op. 67. This proletarian knows more about the work than Marx himself.
Marx gambols across roofs and up and down chimneys, and the comically-biting depiction of the Marx home in which the father, for all his hurtful faults, is seen ultimately to be loving figure even if he can’t resist tearing apart others for laughs. The clever comic insights about music of the distant Germany literally hit home.
It is therefore disappointing and hugely distracting to have the scene changes—masterfully managed by designer Thompson—accompanied by blaring rock guitar mayhem. Some vintage 1850 musical songs, perhaps electronically updated, would have been far better. But the call of the popular and loud ruins the mood and for all its mayhem, deflates the manic energy of the play and reduces it to a serious of episodes rather than a convincing arc. A bothersome tic of modern theatre productions and a favorite ploy of Hytner, The decibel-heavy Euro thrash atomizes the action, cutting the play to pieces rather than lending it an arc worthy of Schumann, Beethoven, or Marx.
These intermittent fusillades from loudspeaker work like the inexorable siren song of mammon. The Bridge wants robust Box Office— and who can blame them? But this tiresome music is plugged into money, the culture industry raining its symphonies down on the daily struggle and the larger life’s work of the madcap Marx.