Oliver Chris plays the role of Friedrich Engels in the forthcoming National Theatre Live screenings of Young Marx in South Africa.

This original comedy is written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, and will be broadcast live from The Bridge Theatre, London, under the direction of Nicholas Hytner.

It’s 1850, and Europe’s most feared terrorist, Karl Marx is hiding in Dean Street, Soho in London.

What attracted you to the script?


“I have actually worked with this team before. I was in a play called One Man, Two Guvnors, which also came to South Africa on NT Live some years ago. I was very excited to be a part of their team then, and so was thrilled that they came to me to ask me to do this exciting new show in this brand new theatre in London. It’s the first major commercial theatre to be built in about 80 years.”

Tell me about your character Friedrich, and how do you relate/connect with him?


“I take on a role generally if they are going to pay me money. That’s my usual connection. Historically Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx are significant figures. They are the founders of the Communist theory, particularly Karl Marx of course, which has affected the lives of billions of people through history and still does today. So to represent this titanic figure from history is a real privilege. But to bring their personal characters, personalities and lives in a light that has never been seen before through this kind of comedic lens, about this chaotic time when they were running around the streets of London forging all of their ideology, is just really exciting.”

This is a new take on Karl Marx and moving away from the very seriousness of his persona. For people who aren’t clued about this historically significance, how do you think they will be able to relate to this?


“The Communist Theory is responsible for billions of people’s lives; China, North Korea are all communist countries. This is the origin of this ideology. The younger generations are all interested in ideas and this is a time of ideas, which shaped the world we lived in. Every generation throws off the old regime, and these were the men who were doing it. If we are going through a technological change now, these were the men who were getting rid of those old ideologies, so it is very relatable.”

Let’s talk about the actual stage – it looks very innovative. Describe the technicalities of the stage and how you as a performer have had to adapt to it, from a theatre perspective and for TV?


“The theatre is brand new and the stage can be reconfigured into any form. In this particular configuration, it is a thrust where the stage comes out slightly into the audience and the audience kind of gets wrapped around it. We fit the cameras in and around the audience, about 6 or 7 cameras, which film the play. So you get a real sense of being in the theatre.”

As a performer, you have to relate to the live audiences and now you have to make it believable for a television audience – how do you do that, and change your technique?


“It’s less television and more cinematic, if that makes sense. It isn’t necessarily a TV show. The cameras are there to capture a theatre performance, and so we don’t really have to change what we are doing as performers on the stage. The cameras are placed and made in a way that makes those performances translate to the big screen in as much detail and as much vibrancy as possible, so we don’t really do anything differently.” 

Is there a particular scene that is your favourite?


“There is a lot of very funny stuff in the play that I enjoy doing. I suppose I have two favourites; the first, I make a very serious speech about the working conditions in Manchester at that time. Engels lived in Manchester for a while and was appalled at the conditions of the workers there and he wrote an extraordinary book called ‘The Condition of the Working Class”. I have a speech, which is from that book, which I find moving. On the flip side, there is a very funny scene in the library, where we have a bit of a brawl, which is very fun to do.”

Your resumé is so impressive – a highlight in your career, besides for this?


“I spent quite a lot of time in South Africa – I filmed a TV show there called ‘Bluestone 42’ for the BBC. I was in South Africa on and off for about 3 years and I had a beautiful time in Cape Town. That was a big highlight. I have done some fantastic plays as well. I finished a play last year called King Charles III, which we made into a TV film. I really enjoyed that. I have been so lucky, I have had so many amazing experiences and have worked with so many amazing people and been involved in so many fantastic projects.”

For people who don’t go to theatre usually, why should they come see this?


“They should come see it, because it is funny. Come, sit back, relax, enjoy.. take your history with a large dose of sugar, and you’ll really enjoy it. It’s a fast, fun night at the cinema. It’s a great piece of theatre.”

Young Marx will have four NT Live broadcasts from Saturday, 13 January at Ster Kinekor Nouveau in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, and at Gateway Commercial in Durban. The running time is approx. 2 hours and 40 minutes, including a 20-min interval. 

Further details on all upcoming NT Live screenings in SA are available via the NT Live website – www.ntlive.com