Theatre in Wales

Plays and dance productions in Wales since 1982...

Birthmarks by Mark Jenkins
First presented in 1990 by Everyman Theatre Cardiff

Birthmarks, set in London in 1850, is about the conspiracy to conceal the paternity of Karl Marx’s illegitimate son by his housekeeper – a ‘noble lie’ to protect himself and his movement from the prevailing moral approbation.

   There are 3 reviews of Everyman Theatre Cardiff's Birthmarks in our database:
Birthmarks by Mark Jenkins
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Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff
‘Karl Marx is immortalised in the public conscience as a purely cerebral character, to millions a God, to others a devil. With all his deification we have forgotten that Marx was a creature of flesh and blood.
Birthmarks succeeds brilliantly in knocking the political philosopher from his pedestal and giving us Marx versus Man. What more personal view could we get than that memorable image conveyed last night of Marx, pants around his ankles, having a boil on his bottom lanced by his wife?
We see him as a volatile man of genius, and moral superiority; who is also capable of great crudeness, hypocrisy, selfishness and lechery.
He made his housekeeper pregnant and when a boy was born, persuaded his colleague Engels to assume paternity in order to safeguard his reputation and forced the housekeeper to give up the child to foster parents.
And as he penned his theories of revolution in the British Museum, his wife had to cope with poverty, a large family, her husband’s moods and infidelity.
This award-winning play by Cardiff academic Mark Jenkins is sophisticated, entertaining and intelligent. The subject has been well-researched, yet is addressed in a fresh, colloquial manner, spiced with sexual innuendo. The play ends cleverly by putting (Marx) in the position of an exploiter, creating surplus value in the shape of an unwanted child. Performances by the six-strong Everyman Theatre Company of Cardiff under director Jeremy James, were uniformly excellent.
Nicole Sochor, Arts Critic of the Western Mail,
Birthmarks by Mark Jenkins
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Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff
‘The troubled souls who sell their ultra-left papers in town centres on Saturdays will not like this (play) which shows their hero as racist, sexist and given to strong drink. As Karl Marx observed, philosophers have interpreted the world and the real point is to change it. We have to thank playwright Mark Jenkins for interpreting Marx.
Jenkins may or may not be a Marxist; since Birthmarks is drama rather than propaganda, it doesn’t matter. It is to be judged on its merits and I judge it to be superb. It is a treat to watch the Everyman Theatre Company…Laurence Llewellyn portrays Marx as nineteenth century in his views on sex and race. The fashionable insistence on equality in all things comes much later and it is simply not good historical practice to saddle Marx himself with it. Marx’s Das Kapital deals with the economic relationship between labour and capital and only in redefining that relationship is he revolutionary.
We are not surprised that, having made his housekeeper pregnant, he quickly gets the child adopted through an arrangement with Engels, fearing damage to his reputation.
Ian May as the tipsy, hunt-following Engels and Cler Stephens as Lenchen are perfect. John Atkinson, doubling as Marx’s lamdlord and a political rival is exquisite, as is Alison Jenkins as Jenny marx and Nick Bowman doubling in lesser roles.
The best play I have seen this year. They even managed to explain Marx’s theory of surplus value and make it interesting!’
Mike Buckingham, Theatre critic, South Wales Argus
Birthmarks by Mark Jenkins
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Chapter Arts Centre Cardiff
This review first appeared in the Western Mail

Mark Jenkins has made something of a specialisation of biodrama - he's written plays about Karl Marx, Robert Owen, August Strindberg, Malcom X, Richard Burton and Orson Wells.

The last two are undoubtedly his most successful and it's no coincidence that they are one-man shows, long monologues where the subject talks to the audience about his troubled identity, fine pieces of writing that work because Jenkins seems to get inside his subjects.

Birthmarks, his first play, is based on a couple of years, around 1850, when the philosopher, economic theorist and revolutionary Karl Marx and his family lived in a dingy two-room flat in London’s Soho. Marx was already in exile from his native Germany for his radical ideas and actions and one incident threatened to give his enemies succour: Marx fathered an illegitimate child on his friend, colleague and housekeeper, Lenchen.

His supporters knew that if this became public knowledge his life, tough enough with ill-health, poverty and sick children, would be made intolerable and his enemies would have a field day, so it was hushed up.

Indeed, his enemies did have a field day when a biographer revealed the details a century later, although it seems most socialists in London at the turn of the century knew about it. And here we have a twist of the knife with a play that seizes on the story as a metaphor for what the playwright sees as the inhuman preference for politics over the personal that is the fatal flaw of marxism.

This plodding multi-character 20 year-old attack on the man who changed the world, inexplicably selected for its first Welsh professional outing as part of the On The Edge season of script-held productions, suffers from a clunky production from Arwel Gruffydd that endorses the general spitefulness of the portrayal by having Marx’s entourage gather round his grave at the end and scream.

It doesn't work mainly because we are never convinced that we are in the presence of Marx, Engels or any of the German exiles who met in their Soho room, partly because of the wordiness of the script, partly by inept staging.

Jenkins, the lefty-turned-liberal, has never shirked controversy or character assassination and this play seems more like disapprobation than drama. In a cringeworthy series of scenes we are shown how Marx the economist came up with his theory of surplus value (better done by Robert Tressell in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist) and quite perceptively identified exploitation as at the heart of capitalism - but the irony, Jenkins suggests, is that Marx exploited everyone around him.

I'm not quite sure how far the casting is meant to signal how we see the protagonists of this moral tale: Marx, for example, is played by the excellent Nathan Sussex but is a far cry from the bearded anguished but fun-loving academic while Engels, fellow bearded radical and allegedly the man who offered to be pretend to be the father of Marx’s bastard, is a hearty robust rugbyplayer-built Greg Llewllyn Arthur.

Marx the man is an easy target: harsh, cruel, rude, offensive, self-obsessed, impoverished and racked by illness (at this time actually liver-related, rather than the boils which came later but which Jenkins here gets much humour from – but, then, boils on the bum are funnier than pleurisy, rheumatic pains, insomnia, neuralgia and other inherited conditions) and the essential problem of Birthmarks is linking the man with the ideas.

Do we await further harangues against Beethoven, Wordsworth and Dickens, for example, other geniuses who hid secret love lives ? I think not, because Jenkins’s attack is on marxism and seeks to find in Marx’s behaviour the faults of an ideology.

With a better production it might prove a more gripping play, but I suspect it will never be convincing – not because of the argument but because the writer is so anxious to make his case that he clearly had yet to find his dramatic voice.


For author Mark Jenkins' response to this review see: "A CRITIC IN DENIAL – THE UNDERWORLD OF DAVID ADAMS." in the Commentary section of this site

Keith Morris
David Adams

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