Yesterday, after having come under fire for an all-white, all-male written and directed opening season, The Bridge Theatre announced another production: a new Martin McDonagh play to be directed by Matthew Dunster. As exciting as it should be to have a brand new, well-funded theatre company in the London scene, The Bridge isn’t offering much hope yet that it is actually going to make a radical difference in the landscape.
But what about the actual plays? The first, Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s Young Marx, directed by company artistic director Nicholas Hytner, feels like the company as a whole: yes, of course it’s fine to have fairly traditional plays created by white men and cast with token diversity (but never so blindly that you actually have an actor of color as one of the leads, of course). You will come up with some pretty good– maybe even great!– plays like that, and obviously no one can stop you. But Young Marx and the Bridge Theatre would be so much better if they weren’t.
Young Marx is about Marx when he’s young. He’s impoverished, living in London, and struggling to write Das Kapital. He feels alienated from his revolutionary group and from his family. This is the kind of play where the long-suffering wife of the man of genius is told, “But he needs you!” and she replies, “But what about what I need?” and no one ever answers. It’s the kind of play where every named adult female character is in love with the man of genius lead.
The most intriguing parts of the play center around the Marxes’ community of radical political refugees, devoted to spreading communism through the world. They turn out to be somewhat beside the point, but watching them, I found my mind drifting to Hamilton. Now, I will argue for the fundamental conservatism of Hamilton all day long, but the casting is a pretty brilliant dramaturgical device, and one that would strengthen Young Marx in the same way as it does the musical. How much better would it be if all the play’s jabs about immigrants and refugees, its air of mistrust and paranoia, its running jokes about police brutality, were being enacted on people of color, people whose foreign accents were real, not (mostly) white British people? As with Hamilton, we would understand the uncertainty and danger of Marx’s position so much more keenly and viscerally. Any other consideration aside, diversity would lead, quite simply, to better storytelling.
And then, too, we might have more than one-line references to the women’s importance to the movement (“She’s a founding member!”) and an understanding of history that admits them as full, genuine participants in the politics and lives of its central characters, not just nagging wives, devoted baby vessels, and cheeky contributors of famous lines in famous works the men are writing (though this sensibility would certainly not be derived from Hamilton). There’s an awareness that in this day and age, women must be acknowledged– they must be present at the radical meeting, even if they’re never given a name– but there’s still no genuine understanding that a sense of history that shunts them to the side and consistently sexualizes them is not actually objective or inevitable. That announcing that you’ll be doing some plays by female writers and directors eventually, but sticking them all under “future projects” and then adding yet another show created by white guys to your inaugural season is not the same as committing to diversity.
But, you know, I get it. If you get offered the new Martin McDonagh play, you don’t turn it down. Rory Kinnear and Oliver Chris are talented and charming, and they put in good shifts here. It’s exciting to see ambitious new work, and I love history plays. The view from the cheap seats in the back is actually pretty good, and it’s awesome to leave the theatre and see Tower Bridge right there, all lit up. Several people stopped to take pictures as they were going out.
But it’s just… it could be better.