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.
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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood