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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Theater Review: Nicholas Hytner, Young Marx. London: Bridge Theatre, 2017.

Theater Review: Nicholas Hytner, Young Marx. London: Bridge Theatre, 2017.

Katie Ebner-Landy

Platypus Review 112 | December 2018

First published on Le Grand Continent on January, 22nd 2018.[1]

Young Marx is a production at the end of history. It is a production led by a Marx whose ideas are parodied, whitewashed, and made to seem out of touch with contemporary reality.

The play begins with Marx chastising a pawnbroker for not knowing the difference between use-value and exchange-value. Later, this Marx sits writing in his Soho rooms with the maid he's got pregnant, his wife, and Engels – and when he says things like 'alienation,' it is Engels, who responds, straight-faced, 'alienation – good word'. The world of Marxist parody continues with name-droppings of Hegel and Feuerbach, knowing references to Marx thinking that his books will have a bad rep in Russia and, to top it off, songs about Marx and Engels being 'Europe's favourite double act.'

Our kitsch Marx is also a Marx who is curiously conformist. He is comfortable hearing and contributing to a defense of Queen Victoria's reign during a Communist League meeting, and at one point gives an earnest speech about how it would be nice if young people stopped caring about social justice and just made love, had picnics, and engaged in other normal, leisurely capitalist pursuits.

Marx's ideas are not only presented as being held without much conviction, but are rarely dwelt on during the play and hardly ever explained. They are instead introduced to us in confusing fragments: overheard ends of conversation, quick one-liners, and the set up of jokes. We hear a prison guard read the beginning of something about dialectical materialism, see Marx slip in a quip about the Phoenicians while stealing a gate, and get thrown mysterious, unexplained phrases like 'vampiric capitalism' and 'universal exchange' – which we are expected to either understand already, or simply ignore.

All this has the remarkable effect of making Marx unpolitical. We have Marx the kitsch, Marx the conformist, and Marx the incomprehensible, but never Marx the live, political thinker. The production, in the words of director Nicholas Hytner, was a way to get to Marx the man, rather than Marx the political icon. We might imagine that Hytner justified this focus as an attempt to make a political icon accessible to a new audience, but his decision to do so through making a Marx more like a Michael McIntyre renders this reasoning slightly suspect.

And, anyway, was a production of Young Marx in 2017 going to bring Marx to a theatre-going audience who did not know much about him already? If Young Marx had opened at the Bridge Theatre in October 2014 rather than October 2017 it might be fair to judge it as an attempt to introduce Marx to a wider audience. But, after the Labour leadership election in September 2015, Marx had decidedly come back onto the agenda.

In the run-up to the election, 'Marx' remained a placeholder for dangerous and absurd politics, with Jeremy Corbyn being grilled by Cathy Newman Channel 4 on whether he was to the left of Karl Marx.[2] However, by May 2018, even the Financial Times was happy to run a piece for Marx's 200th birthday, entitled “Why Karl Marx is more relevant than ever.”[3] This piece was the inheritor of a series of articles to the same effect in the New Yorker (2016),[4] The Economist (May 2017),[5] and the New Statesman (June 2017).[6] The production timeline of Young Marx would therefore not have fallen at a moment in British history in which Marx was little discussed and less understood, but bang in the center of a series of years in which Marx's popularity was newly on the rise, and crucially where his ideas looked like they were gaining contemporary traction.

For Gregory Claeys in his new Marx and Marxism, Marx's new relevance lies in his sense of another world being possible; for Jayati Ghosh,[7] in the way he can help us understand how the gig economy exploits the need to sell labour to survive; for Bank of England governor Mark Carney,[8] in his ability to speak to workers whose jobs have been ceded to automation; and for John McDonnell, on the Andrew Marr show,[9] for providing the principles for an economy based on 'fairness.' None of which, sadly, was part of the vision of Marx brought into being at the Bridge Theatre.

The lack of politics in Young Marx therefore does not seem like it is the mark of a moment, place, and time in which Marx is irrelevant, but the mark of a production trying to make this so.

During the interval of the live screening of Young Marx, there was a documentary played in which a Professor of English described Marx's life in his Soho rooms. The choice to invite a biographer to host the documentary, rather than a contemporary Marxist intellectual herself, was the production's final nail in a coffin attempting to bury Marx's ideas.

But, a Marx who is neither a relic nor a rascal is on the horizon – even if the Bridge Theatre has tried to stop him. | P

[1] Available online at: <>.

[2] Heather Saul, “Cathy Newman says Jeremy Corbyn was 'shaking with rage' after interview branded 'biased' by Labour candidate's supporters,” Independent, August 18, 2015, <>.

[3] Adam Tooze, “Why Karl Marx is more relevant than ever,” Financial Times, May 4, 2018, <>.

[4] Louis Menand, “Karl Marx, yesterday and today,” The New Yorker, October 10, 2016, <>.

[5] Walter Bagehot, “Labour is right – Karl Marx has a lot to teach today's politicians,” The Economist, May 11, 2017, <>.

[6] Jonathan Portes, “What Marx got right,” New Statesmen, June 26, 2017, <>.

[7] Jayati Ghosh, “150 years of 'Das Kapital': How relevant is Marx today?” Al Jazeera, August 22, 2017, <>.

[8] Colin Drury, “Mark Carney warns robots taking jobs could lead to the rise of Marxism,” Independent, April 14, 2018, <>.

[9] Available online at: <>.