Mark Jenkins has made something of a specialisation of biodrama – he’s written plays about Karl Marx, Robert Owen, August Strindberg, Malcom X, Richard Burton and Orson Wells.
The last two are undoubtedly his most successful and it’s no coincidence that they are one-man shows, long monologues where the subject talks to the audience about his troubled identity, fine pieces of writing that work because Jenkins seems to get inside his subjects.
Birthmarks, his first play, is based on a couple of years, around 1850, when the philosopher, economic theorist and revolutionary Karl Marx and his family lived in a dingy two-room flat in London’s Soho. Marx was already in exile from his native Germany for his radical ideas and actions and one incident threatened to give his enemies succour: Marx fathered an illegitimate child on his friend, colleague and housekeeper, Lenchen.
His supporters knew that if this became public knowledge his life, tough enough with ill-health, poverty and sick children, would be made intolerable and his enemies would have a field day, so it was hushed up.
Indeed, his enemies did have a field day when a biographer revealed the details a century later, although it seems most socialists in London at the turn of the century knew about it. And here we have a twist of the knife with a play that seizes on the story as a metaphor for what the playwright sees as the inhuman preference for politics over the personal that is the fatal flaw of marxism.
This plodding multi-character 20 year-old attack on the man who changed the world, inexplicably selected for its first Welsh professional outing as part of the On The Edge season of script-held productions, suffers from a clunky production from Arwel Gruffydd that endorses the general spitefulness of the portrayal by having Marx’s entourage gather round his grave at the end and scream.
It doesn’t work mainly because we are never convinced that we are in the presence of Marx, Engels or any of the German exiles who met in their Soho room, partly because of the wordiness of the script, partly by inept staging.
Jenkins, the lefty-turned-liberal, has never shirked controversy or character assassination and this play seems more like disapprobation than drama. In a cringeworthy series of scenes we are shown how Marx the economist came up with his theory of surplus value (better done by Robert Tressell in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist) and quite perceptively identified exploitation as at the heart of capitalism – but the irony, Jenkins suggests, is that Marx exploited everyone around him.
I’m not quite sure how far the casting is meant to signal how we see the protagonists of this moral tale: Marx, for example, is played by the excellent Nathan Sussex but is a far cry from the bearded anguished but fun-loving academic while Engels, fellow bearded radical and allegedly the man who offered to be pretend to be the father of Marx’s bastard, is a hearty robust rugbyplayer-built Greg Llewllyn Arthur.
Marx the man is an easy target: harsh, cruel, rude, offensive, self-obsessed, impoverished and racked by illness (at this time actually liver-related, rather than the boils which came later but which Jenkins here gets much humour from – but, then, boils on the bum are funnier than pleurisy, rheumatic pains, insomnia, neuralgia and other inherited conditions) and the essential problem of Birthmarks is linking the man with the ideas.
Do we await further harangues against Beethoven, Wordsworth and Dickens, for example, other geniuses who hid secret love lives ? I think not, because Jenkins’s attack is on marxism and seeks to find in Marx’s behaviour the faults of an ideology.
With a better production it might prove a more gripping play, but I suspect it will never be convincing – not because of the argument but because the writer is so anxious to make his case that he clearly had yet to find his dramatic voice.