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.
MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES
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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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