Full marks for courage: to build the first London commercial theatre for close to a century, and then to open with an un-tried play.
Given that the play was sold out for weeks in advance before the first performance, we can but hope that the experiment works. The "big screen" version gave us a tour of the South Bank building – huge foyer, versatile auditorium – a welcoming space.
The play does help us to see Marx with new eyes – not just as the earnest, and seemingly humourless ideologue whose "Das Capital, A Critique of Capitalist Economy" changed the world, toppled regimes, and defined political struggle for decades – but as a 32 year old flawed, narcissistic, emotionally tone-deaf lush, happy to marry a baroness and "exploit the contradictions" of being subsidized albeit indirectly by an industrialist's ill-gotten wealth.
Engels is realistic enough, despite Marx's palpable imperfections, to acknowledge his genius "I write down what I see. I'm a beta-plus. You're an alpha, a bona fide genius, you prick."
Problem is, this play does allow us to acknowledge the flaws – his philandering, his exploitation of the women in his life, his boozing, his procrastination and also his humour and his warmth to his children, when he notices that they exist. But it really doesn't (except on a few occasions) address his unique insights. Even the threatening surveillance he undergoes is used as an opportunity for farce.
There is a section where Marx rejects the idea of assassinating the Queen, not on humanitarian but on utilitarian grounds. It won't work, he argues, because the proletariat love their monarch. Using a humble sausage as the focal point of his argument, he suggests that revolution will come when the proletariat become aware of inequity because of an economic crash, and when Christmas becomes an orgy of commodification.
Marx the orator, Marx the activist and Marx the scholar-polemicist are not much in evidence in this play.
There are many of the elements of a farce – much hiding in cupboards, up chimneys, under tables, just a few steps away from the bailiffs and the police.
And the set is unremittingly black and grey, suggesting the squalor of a two bedroomed lodging in London's Tottenham Court Road.
That said, Roy Kinnear does well with the material given him, catching the complexity of Marx as flawed self-obsessed visionary. Oliver Chris is an excellent off-sider for the double act of Marx and Engels – fully aware that his role is to be a midwife for the birth of Marxism. Nancy Carroll is excellent as the long-suffering and perceptive Jenny, and Laura Elphinstone captures the stresses of being the lesser element of a menage a trois, while also fully supportive of the vision that is in so many ways more powerful than it's begetter.
This is a play well worth seeing and pondering. It is very good, but it could have been so much more.