Review: Young Marx at Bridge Theatre

Tonight, I had the privilege of attending the opening night of Young Marx at Bridge Theatre in London. It was literally the first time the play was performed for the public, so no one has published a review yet, and if I can finish writing this quickly I may actually be the first person to publicly review it. So here goes. Please excuse the lack of polish or editing.

My verdict: watch it. If you have the opportunity, just, watch it. Even if you’re not a fan of Marx’s work. I’m personally somewhat biased because I do have a strong affinity to his work: over the past year, I’ve read (and relished) a fair amount of Marxist theory, though only a small amount of first-party writing (The Communist Manifesto and his fragment on machines from the Grundrisse). But I do think that you’ll enjoy the play even if you only have a vague idea of what Marxist critique is all about.

As for the play itself: The plot, which is described as “semi-true” in the press materials, seems to be a mixture of historical record, plausible gossip, and events that were made up for dramatic effect, so make sure you do some research before ascribing anything that happens in the play to the actual Karl Marx. The set design was incredible (a very dynamic and creative use of space/materials); the acting was stellar (the Marx & Engels friendship in particular was extremely solid); the writing was fast-paced and clever (lots of German/French jokes thrown in to appeal to a presumed multilingual audience, plus references to actual Marxist thought & just British culture). You can tell the writers know their stuff— there are a lot of cute little references to Feuerbach & dialectical materialism & alienation, most of which you’ll appreciate even if you’ve only read a little bit about Marx.

My singular favourite moment of the play comes during a chaotic meeting of the Communist League, when some members of the League are proposing a violent overthrow of the British monarchy in order to incite a revolution. Tensions are high and the future seems uncertain when Marx, who (at least in the play) is wholly opposed to such a violent approach, begins to speak. As his fellow League members quiet down, and his voice rises above the fray, there’s this perfect moment when the frenetic, undisciplined energy of the meeting melts away into this a sublime bit of stillness. When Marx somehow breaches the fourth wall and begins talking to you. At that moment, the set, the seats, the people around you all fade away and instead of an actor performing for an audience, it’s as if you’re alone in an empty theatre, alone except for the spectre of Karl Marx exhorting you to change the world. Telling you that there will be a moment when capitalism will be thrown into crisis, when the banks will have failed, when people will have lost trust in the system. That’s when we’ll have the opportunity to rise up and change the way things are.

Because here’s the thing: we’ve lived through that. We’ve all lived through such a crisis. The writers know it, the actors know, we know it. But we also know what happened as a result of the crisis: a few people rose up in protest, sure, but nothing has really changed. In many ways, the system is still the same as before. So when he speaks, the sincerity and poignancy of his optimism crashes through time into our contemporary knowledge of what actually happened. Sitting in the bitter penumbra of the the financial crisis — a crisis which, so far, doesn’t seem to have played out as Marx would have envisaged — it’s hard not to feel this sense of unspeakable sadness and regret, like we’ve somehow failed him.

Maybe that moment will be enough; maybe it’ll make at least one person look at the world differently. Maybe it’ll open up a space for critical thought, forcing at least some of the audience to question the way things are and ask if the world has to be this way. Maybe it’ll transcend the limits of the stage and become a truly Marxist form of literature: one that doesn’t just offer a commentary on the world, but has a shot of changing it.

Who knows? One can only hope. In the meantime, I exhort you: go see this play.

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