At the Edinburgh Fringe: Engels! The Karl Marx Story and The Confessions of Gordon Brown

Karl Marx and Gordon Brown unravel on stage in two political gems at this year's Edinburgh Fringe.

Engels! The Karl Marx Story

It is a truth universally acknowledged that it was Engels who bankrolled his friend Karl Marx in his less than successful publishing and political ventures and that Marx was, well, a bit dissolute in his lifestyle choices. Ben Blow and Matthew Webb have taken this idea, run with it and kicked it enthusiastically through the dialectic. Any audience members who were hoping for fifty minutes of the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon were disillusioned right at the start when we meet the two co-authors of The Communist Manifesto, sitting at a table. Marx has a gun in his mouth, and, it soon becomes apparent, is being, er, serviced under the table by a local Manchester prostitute Molly.

Molly (Rowan Winter) we learn has more than a passing contribution to the writing of the Manifesto - in fact she wrote most of it, and since Marx spends a large proportion of Engels' money with her has been able to send her son Tarquin (Johnny Dillon) to Cambridge, which gives the dynamic duo access to the printing presses at the University. The already historically shaky narrative now careers off even further from the record as they at one point ride across France and Belgium on a three-legged horse. Marx, an inveterate thief of other people's work, tries at one point to steal Les Misérables from a struggling Victor Hugo. The Blues Brothers glasses do come out at one point, but we've had such good fun I think we can forgive them that. I have no idea if Jebb and Blow are members of any Marxist sect, but if they are it is probably safe to assume that they have by now been expelled. Someone should take a punt on this show and book it into a London pub venue.

The Confessions of Gordon Brown

If Marx is presented as a man only too keen to take credit for other people's work, Kevin Toolis's The Confessions of Gordon Brown portrays a man not very keen on letting anyone else do anything at all. Ian Grieve gives a towering performance as Brown seemingly frozen in time at twenty to six in the morning, waiting for his staff to arrive at six, so he can shout at them. He is fixated by the example of his father "John Brown, minister..." and the motto of his old school Kircaldy High: "I strive to my utmost". If there are one too many references to his hatred for Tony Blair and Cherie - "that couple - I think we all know who I mean" - it doesn't distract too much from a portrait of a man who criticises others for not having fixed principles (and for the apparently even more heinous crime of being bald in politics), but doesn't really seem to have many himself, aside from fulfilling his manifest destiny to become prime minister.

Toolis should be congratulated for a rounded portrait of a man formed by power rather than resorting to the caricatures of new Labour common to much recent political drama. It was the best portrayal of the dreadful fate of being at the top since Michael Frayn's portrayal of Willi Brandt in Democracy.

Engels! The Karl Marx Story runs at the Surgeon's Hall, Nicholson St, Edinburgh until the 17th of August, while The Confessions of Gordon Brown will run at the Pleasance, Edinburgh until the 26th of August and then at the Trafalgar studio London 3rd-28th September

 

Ben Blow and Rowan Winter in Engels! The Karl Marx Story.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism