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.
The evening was billed as a celebration – excerpts from the plays of Mark Jenkins and the launch of his new collection – but one suspects the enthusiastic audience gathered at Chapter was there to celebrate more than a new publication.For this was the first opportunity to congratulate the playwright on his Edinburgh Festival Fringe First Award and, perhaps, to celebrate the arrival of a Welsh-based writer with established credentials – though it’s taken Jenkins twenty years to “arrive”, with half-a-dozen professional productions to his name.
The award was for Rosebud, his fascinating and uncannily credible portrayal of Orson Welles, and the performance here finished with the author himself reading part of the monologue, reminding us, too, that he’s probably best known for another one-man drama, Playing Burton, currently in LA and due to get another Welsh outing at the Millennium Centre in December.
But this event concentrated on less-known works and, as with other performances in this series of rehearsed readings, held out the prospect of a rare overview of the oeuvre of this neglected Welsh success – and maybe a hint as to why and how an ex-communist academic became a much-lauded playwright who is still snubbed in Wales.
Mr Owen’s Millennium, Norah’s Bloke, Birthmarks and Downtown Paradise (the four plays in Parthian’s More Lives Than One collection) do not, in fact, tell us much about the enigmatic Mr Jenkins, except that he can be passionate about what he sees as real socialism, cynical about politic theorists, aware of his London-Irish-Welsh upbringing, fascinated by larger-than-life characters. But of the real Mark Jenkins we discover little and he remains one of those playwrights whose creations have their own dramatic life and are not agents of their author’s own agendas… or so we are led to believe.
Excerpts, of course, do not give much indication of the complete plays, especially when the performances are of such varied quality as here, but what they do offer is a taste of Jenkins’s skills in sketching out characters, his manipulation of them to make debate, his erudition and also his empathy.
For Jenkins does tend to write about real-lifer individuals – Norah’s Bloke, his latest play, is the only one that is about a social situation and while the scenes we had here were well-done and effective, it’s not his best play as a whole, perhaps because it is autobiographical and lacks the toughness of the others.
It does show him as a more mature artist, though, less concerned with rewriting history or trying to get under the skin of famous people – Robert Owen, Marx and Engels, Strinberg, Burton and Welles, all of whom have had a Jenkins makeover to their benefit or detriment.
So why isn’t he revered in his home country ? His tribute to the pioneer of cooperativism and socialism, Mr Owen’s Millennium, is the only Welsh-based play (though his study of Richard Burton obviously has Welsh connotations), but perhaps it’s too uncritically adulatory – more obviously the work of someone deeply disillusioned by theory and approving of practical socialism.
No such generosity to Marx and Engels (in Birthmarks) or to a Black Power activist and his besotted solicitor (in Downtown Paradise) – people Jenkins seems to dislike for what he would see as their lack of human concern, with the implication that all hard-line idealists are not only insensitive but corrupt.
Jenkins in these political biographies writes in a kind of David Hare mould but on a minimalist scale: he criticises dogmatism through the study of individuals rather than the bigger picture. One suspects he is also fascinated by big names and is not too humble or afraid to presume to rewrite their lives from the selective perspective that gives him enormous control over their arguments.
It’s that uncomfortable, unfashionably revisionist analysis of heroic icons of ideology and culture that must make many approach Mark Jenkins with caution – but it’s also what makes his work often irresistibly fascinating, even when presented in frustratingly bite-sized portions.