A Cloud in Trousers
The Studio at York Theatre Royal and touring
Before the age of monolithic Communism, "official" literature and Socialist Realism there was a brief but extraordinary flowering of avant-garde literature and art in the Soviet Union. Vladimir Mayakovsky (played by John Sackville) may not be a household name in Britain but he is regarded as one of Russia's greatest poets, an original and dangerously outspoken talent who had the misfortune to be at the height of his powers just as the state began to clamp down on unorthodox art. Steve Trafford's new play examines Mayakovsky's impact on the lives of Moscow couple Lili Brik (Elizabeth Mansfield) and her husband Osip (Mark Payton, replacing an injured Robert Pickavance at short notice), committed revolutionaries with whom he forms an emotionally fraught ménage-a-trois as the Revolution struggles to survive and Stalin climbs to supreme power.
The play opens in the Briks' chilly apartment, its stove fuelled by old chairs and the classics of Russian literature ("No point being frozen when we're surrounded by dead wood Burn Chekhov's bloody whining sisters", says Osip). Mayakovsky arrives in search of Lili's sister but soon becomes enamoured of Lili herself, a state of affairs that is tolerated by Osip to the extent that the eccentric poet moves in and gets Lili pregnant. Mayakovsky's outrage at her decision to have an abortion ("A man should have children") is emblematic of the play's underlying theme - changing society is one thing, changing human nature is quite another.
"The clawed bear of jealousy" is only one of the problems Mayakovsky has to face; he discovers that Osip, a critic whose influence brings his work to a wider audience, also has disturbing links with the Cheka (forerunner of the KGB). Reduced to writing adverts for light bulbs and dummies, the poet still refuses to toe the line and Osip arranges for him to visit America, ostensibly as a correspondent for Isvestia. Ignoring Osip's orders to stay abroad for his own safety, Mayakovsky returns to a country in which dissident artists are tortured in the Lubianka prison and Christmas trees are adorned with pictures of Stalin. "Love's boat has crashed on philistine reefs," and there's only one way out: "It's enough/To stretch out your hand/And in an instant/The bullet/Will chart/A thundering path to the hereafter." Mayakovsky shot himself at the age of 37.
A Cloud in Trousers is described as a tragi-comedy, and there are some brilliantly funny moments to lighten the dark shadow of Stalinism. The Briks' old maidservant Annushka (Gilly Tompkins) has more than her fair share of quotable lines - "No clothes and one apple between all of us. We're in paradise alright," she grumbles on returning from an unsuccessful trip to the market. Had the play been a slice-of-life drama like the popular TV shows for which Trafford usually writes some of the dialogue would have sounded a little stilted, but Damien Cruden's production is sufficiently stylized to keep our disbelief safely suspended. A Cloud in Trousers is that rare bird, a new work that credits the audience with enough intelligence to understand and enjoy poetic language; Trafford's obvious delight in Mayakovsky's work is infectious and his play is a fascinating tribute to "the man from the future".
The Studio at York Theatre Royal until 23rd October, then touring to Newcastle Under Lyme, Frome, Poole, London, Keswick, Mold, Leyland, Wisbech, Leighton Buzzard, Oxford and Bath
Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson