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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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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