Marx in London

Unlike Marx's great work Capital, the one thing you cannot describe this boisterous comic Opera as, is boring. 'Based on a true story' as they say, this show throws together, into the period of one day, a deluge of domestic disasters from Karl Marx's life: creditors taking all the furniture, being wanted for theft, carbuncles on the bum and losing his wife's most treasured possession. There are dreams of a communist utopia and subplots involving an illegitimate son, an affair, a bomb attack, illicit lovers, and a Prussian spy. And that is just the bones of the story.

A deluge of domestic disasters from Karl Marx’s life

With brio and wit, Jonathan Dove, the composer, takes us on a joyous trolley dash through musical and Opera history. Marx's wife, Jenny, has a motif referencing the music from Psycho, there is minimalism vying with the coloratura of Marx's excitable teenage daughter, Tussi and there is the standard comic opera disguise of the lover pretending to be a piano teacher. Dove does a comedic smash-and-grab with Wagner references: Engels' heroic tenor, Marx's meistersinger contest with his oratorical rival Melanzane, the supernatural properties of the case of silver cutlery that works as a MacGuffin and also a magical means of reconciliation, and a bit of incest.

The music (conducted by David Parry) contains some absolute bangers. Standouts include the drunken drinking song of Jenny and the housekeeper Helene and the poignant trio where Engels and the ladies of the household lament their sacrifices for the ungrateful Marx. The choral pieces depicting Marx's dream of Utopia and later the Londoners enjoying Hampstead Heath are particularly powerful and moving.

Roland Wood, as Marx, moves faultlessly through comedic despair, slapstick, domineering oratorical passion and henpecked. Rebecca Bottone convincingly acts the required shiny-eyed hormonal excess of Tussi while inexhaustibly singing endless coloratura. The intensely emotional sopranos of the Marx women contrast with the stable, level-headed mezzo-soprano of the housekeeper Helene, performed with wit and warmth by Lucy Schaufer.

The Opera was developed in a joint venture with Theatre Bonn (libretto by Charles Hart, in English), but further performances stalled due to COVID-19. Scottish Opera boldly decided to create a new design under Yannis Thavoris. Directed by Stephen Barlow, this show appropriately includes a few local jokes. For example, there is a pointed text insert when Tussi offers to play a Scottish ecossaise on the piano, and the nineteenth century London backdrop includes some anachronistic Scottish shop names. (Video design: PJ McEvoy.)

The show is not a scathing satire; admittedly, there is a contemporary edge to showing the agents of historical change as farcical (Johnson and Trump come to mind), and there is an underlying irony in the characters' obsession with ownership. But while Marx may have feet of clay, he is not all clay – he is generous to a fault and dedicated to his great project.

This is the first production of the Opera in the UK. Comedy is often underrated compared to more earnest work. This is unfair. I hope this is not the last we have seen of Karl and his family. Viva Marx!

Reviews by Mark Harding

Lyceum Theatre

Blue Beard

★★★★
Edinburgh Festival Theatre

Marx in London

★★★★
Lyceum Theatre

Two Sisters

★★★★
Lyceum Theatre

Jekyll and Hyde

★★★★
Paisley Town Hall

Hansel & Gretel

★★★
Edinburgh Festival Theatre

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★★★★

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Performances

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The Blurb

The UK premiere of Jonathan Dove’s opera, a kinetic new production, plumbing the frivolity and profundity of one man’s existence.

London, 1871. The spectre of communism might be haunting Europe, but Karl Marx’s demons are far more mundane. Watched by a spy, chased by debt collectors, harassed by his family (legitimate and not), and rescued repeatedly from financial ruin by Friedrich Engels, a single madcap day is the backdrop for a run of misadventures and mistakes. Marx might have envisioned an economic system that would restore order and equality to the workers of the world, but his own affairs are in chaos. Amidst this storm in a teacup, can he find an hour to write?

This grand farce is led by Roland Wood (Il trittico 2023) as Karl Marx. Marx in London! takes the great thinker off his pedestal, interweaving zany humour with moments of sadness and sorrow.

Sung in English with English supertitles

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