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.
RICHARD KOEK/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era