Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Karl Marx is coming home

Bob Weick has been touring the USA in Howard Zinn's one-person play, Marx in Soho for years.

In the year of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, Weick finally brings the play to England with dates in Manchester and London and makes the point of mentioning his excitement at being close to places frequented by the political philosopher.

Actually this is an understatement. The tour includes two dates at the Kings Arms on June 9-10; however, prior to those dates, on June 2, Marx in Soho is to be staged in Chetham’s Library - the actual place where Marx, together with Friedrich Engels, worked on The Communist Manifesto. The performance starts at 8pm but a tour of the library will precede it from 7.15pm. MTA, however, jumped the gun and toured the venue in advance. Never let it be said we don’t do our homework.

Places of historical significance tend to be situated in isolated or rural areas, Chetham’s Library, however, is smack in the centre of Manchester just over the road from Victoria Railway Station. Most stately homes have a fake ‘tourist’ feel about them as if frozen in time purely to give visitors the chance to see how things worked in the past. Chetham’s Library, on the other hand, is a working environment operating as both a library and a centre of excellence for pupils studying music.

Chetham’s Library has been in continuous use as a free public library for more than 350 years. This is astonishingly farsighted when you consider that, at the time the library was established, literacy was not widespread. As well as a fine collection of early printed books, the library collections include a wealth of ephemera, manuscript diaries, letters and deeds, prints, paintings and glass lantern slides. Touring the library feels like visiting a real-life ‘Hogwarts’  as it involves squeezing along corridors made narrow by masses of books housed in towering wooden shelves in locked bookcases and in gated sections. The books in one stunning collection have been preserved faithfully just as they were in the church where they were formerly located - chained to the bookcase to prevent theft.

However, the main attraction is a simple four-sided desk situated in an alcove, which, according to a letter from Engels to Marx, is the very spot at which they sat when they developed their revolutionary ideas. The relaxed atmosphere of the tour is such that, visitors are allowed to pose, and photograph themselves at the desk. The fact that Engels took the trouble to remind Marx of their time in Chetham’s Library shows a surprisingly sentimental side to a pair of revolutionaries.

The performance of Marx in Soho is to be staged in Chetham’s Baronial Hall; part of a beautiful sandstone building dating from 1421, which was built to accommodate the priests of Manchester’s Collegiate Church. Producers often go to extremes in their efforts to find the right venue at which to stage a play but it does seem like, in this instance, Juniper Productions have hit the bull’s eye by staging a show about historical events in a building that is actually historic.

David Cunningham