There’s no subtle irony present in the fact that Ed Hughes’ rendition of Mayakovsky chastises Pushkin for being conservative whilst a performance of Boris Godunov takes place downstairs. Whilst the larger production of Boris in the Swan Theatre suggests the danger inherent in revolution, this one man show demonstrates the romance and optimism present in revolutionary ideas, drawing attention to the power of the individual to make change.
The piece, penned by Andrew Rattenbury and directed by Michael Vale, allows Vladimir Mayakovsky (the great revolutionary poet and playwright) telling us his story, refuting his critics and reciting his verse. In just over an hour, we learn about his upbringing, how he found his way into Bolshevik circles and his feelings about poetry. Every few minutes, a snippet of poetry finds its way into the monologue, repeatedly dragging us out of theatre-induced reverie and into the brutal, harsh world of struggle which exists in reality.
Rattenbury’s great achievements in his text are twofold. Firstly, he manages to capture the essence of a man who, throughout his life, was subject to abuse and criticism for being an individualist even though he wanted a better way of life for all. As a part of the Russian Futurist movement, he attempted to look forwards rather than backwards like many of his contemporaries and found himself perpetually re-evaluating and reaffirming his stance on poetry, love and life. The sense of loss and despair at not having more of an impact is palpable.
Alongside this, however, is a gorgeously optimistic homage to the wonders of poetry and its potential for change. Mayakovsky says his chosen art form “wakes up” those who are unaware of what’s happening around them, and recounts his joy in standing in front of thousands of people in order to recite his words. Rattenbury’s script also argues against the notion that poetry which is too “topical” cannot last into posterity, as our hero shouts down his critics by asking them to tell him that in 1000 years time. Hughes’ moist-eyed performance is full of a hopeful, revolutionary fervour, and at times almost had me rising to my feet to grab a red flag (the second time that’s happened in a week; Les Misérables I’m looking at you).
Though at first glance Mayakovsky: The Slanting Rain may be without any kind intrigue, Rattenbury and Vale create an immense tension by asking us to consider in great detail the questions thrown up by having a lone man on stage talking about ‘the people’ and a collectivised society. Does this focus on the individual take away meaning from his attacks on capitalism? Or is it important for any revolution to start with a revolution of the self? The latter certainly seems to have more weight in this context.
Aside from its insights into political struggle and poetry’s place in that change, Mayakovsky: The Slanting Rain also shows the great power we each have as individuals. This is a powerful hymn, then, to one man and his extraordinary words, which, though he was afraid they wouldn’t (he committed suicide at the age of 36), continue to touch us in the twenty-first century in a multitude of ways.