Reviews: A Cloud In Trousers

Review by: The Guardian

A Cloud in Trousers at the Southwark Playhouse, London

Steve Trafford's play takes us back to the Futurists: specifically to the attempt to reconstruct poetry and art in the wake of the Russian revolution. But even if Trafford's hero, Vladimir Mayakovsky, remains an enigma, the play makes a fascinating companion piece to Nikolai Erdman's The Mandate playing down the road at the National.

Trafford focuses on the attempt of Mayakovsky and his pals to achieve a revolution in art, sex and politics. In 1917 the noisy poet-playwright, who wears his tie on his shoulder and his heart on his sleeve, meets up with the Muscovite editor, Osip Brik, and his wife, Lili. And when Osip uses Lili to persuade the poet to join the party, a meeting of minds quickly turns into a ménage a trios. As Lili says: "We change nothing if we can't change ourselves." But although the threesome precariously works and Mayakovsky enjoys literary fame under Lenin, everything changes after Stalin's accession culminating in the poet's suicide in 1930.

The best feature of the play is that it gives us generous helpings of Mayakovsky's poetry: the title itself stems from a famous line in which the poet defined himself as, in Peter Conrad's words, "a volatile spirit materialising on level ground, mystery clad in buffoonery". But what Trafford never makes clear is how much Mayakovsky was a committed revolutionary and how much an anarchic individualist. He wrote a paean to Lenin and hymned the steelworkers of Kursk. But you get the impression that his talent was for lyricism and satire.

Dusty Hughes's Futurists gave us a richer portrait of the period. But Trafford's play is a lively study of love among the artists and of the recurrence of bourgeois possessiveness even among a group of self-conscious Bohemians.

Jointly presented by Ensemble and York Theatre Royal, Damian Cruden's production, punctuated by captions from Mayakovsky's poetry, also has verve. John Sackville catches the hero's manic excitability. Elizabeth Mansfield's Lili has a bright-eyed fervour that enables her to overcome lines like, "Isn't great writing always a response to pain?" And Mark Payton's Osip is the born survivor who sups with the Futurists while working for the secret police.

Even if the politics are only briefly sketched in, the play leaves one in no doubt about the failure of the revolutionary dream and persuades one Mayakovsky was a considerable poet.

Michael Billington.

Friday November 5 2004

Review by: The Times

A Cloud in Trousers at the Southwark Playhouse, London

Why did the poet and dramatist Mayakovsky blow out his brains in 1930? Because he couldn't bear the Stalinisation of the arts? Because, even though Uncle Joe was to surprise everyone by praising him 'after his death as the most talented poet of our Soviet era", he knew that he was in personal peril too? Because he was unstable, reckless and self destructive? Or because his love life was getting intolerably intense? You emerge from Steve Trafford's A Cloud in Trousers thinking that some unfathomable mix of these reasons did for Mayakovsky, but, because of the play's focus, that there may be more weight in the last of them than most historians think.

The play begins in 1917 or 1918, when the poet first meets the critic Osip Brik and his wife Lili, and ends in 1930, when he commits suicide and Osip leaves, Moscow. Between those dates, they become and precariously remain a ménage a trois.

The Bolsheviks thought of themselves as engineers of the human spirit, but they were ineffective ones, as Trafford. proceeds to show. Outside the Brik flat, Stalin's henchmen are ensuring that the likes of Mayakovsky abandon futurism and other expressions of "individualism".

Inside, three idealists are remodelling their sexual relations in what they think is a good, revolutionary way. But neither creativity nor jealousy can easily be eradicated. Certainly, both the old Adam and the Byron in Mayakovsky refuse to be repressed.

Trafford produces an intelligent, sympathetic picture of people trying to survive impossible times: Mark Payton's earnest, rational Osip, John Sackville's passionate, fulminating Mayakovsky, Elizabeth Mansfield's large hearted Lili and, not least, Gilly Tompkins as a family factotum whose earthy conservatism extends to admiring Stalin for bringing stability to Russia. And every so often the director, Damian Cruden, reddens the stage, and we get longish snatches of undeniably fine, bold poetry.

The trouble is that the boldness if not the fineness infects the dialogue, producing some overwrought exchanges. `You must survive the coming darkness. Beyond the reach of your tormentors." And would even Mayakovsky tell his mistress that her eyes are full of blossom, "like two fresh meadows I want to tumble in"?

Well, maybe he's one of the few men who might. What Trafford finally gives us is the tale of a weirdly shaped peg failing to adjust to the squarest of holes and plenty of reason to lament the premature loss of one of Russia's finest writers.

Benedict Nightingale

Tuesday November 9 2004

Review by: The Evening Standard

A Cloud in Trousers at the Southwark Playhouse, London

Adding an extra side to the love triangle

The onstage ménage a trois is customarily a flower of decadence think of that trio of bisexual bohos in Coward's Design for Living. In Steve Trafford' s A Cloud in Trousers a play extrapolated from the life of the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky the threesome is a logical extension of the abolition of private property.

That, anyway, is the view of Lili Brik (Elizabeth Mansfield), the woman at the apex of this love triangle. If the ownership of inanimate objects is immoral, she reasons, then the ownership of people is doubly so. Her husband, Osip (Mark Payton), concurs though he may simply be accepting his cuckoldry with the same questionable pragmatism that has led him to collaborate with the secret police. For Mayakovsky (John Sackville), the arrangement furnishes good material for his freewheeling verse just what he needs when his only paid work is formulating jingles for the state condom company. ("Our prophylactics could save the revolution/If every apparatchik was forced to use one.")

The principals make efficient work of these roles. Mansfield's saucer eyes express an earnest devotion to the reorganisation of sexual relations along Marxist lines without ever suggesting that Lili just wants to have her cake and eat it. Payton lends Osip an air of shabby dignity even as he disappears to a clandestine meeting at the Lubyanka. Sackville's angular features give his Mayakovsky the appearance of a cubist painting that has leapt from the gallery wall. All three, however, are comprehensively upstaged by Gilly Tompkins's satisfyingly surly turn as Annushka, their world weary maid-of all work. As the trio of lovers row about sex under communism and the Sovietisation of art, she does their shopping, saws up furniture for firewood, burns volumes of Tolstoy to keep them all warm and mourns the death of her soldier son. Three's company, sure. But in this case, four is better.

Matthew Sweet

Monday 8 November 2004

Review by: Time Out

A Cloud in Trousers at the Southwark Playhouse, London

The divisions in '20s Russia are brought home by the coincidence of Nikolai Erdman's 'The Mandate' and Steve Trafford's play about the Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky opening within a week of each other. Erdman's play shows a bunch of terrified people unsympathetic to the political upheaval but prepared to swear anything in order to survive. In Trafford's play, Lili and Osip Brik wholeheartedly embrace the ideals of the revolution, their enthusiasm only evaporating when Trotsky loses out to Stalin. It's a poignant irony that as they become more and more horrified by Stalin's consolidation of power, so their anachronistic servant welcomes his rise, which is accompanied by more food in the markets and the promise of new homes.

Trafford, who was a founder member of the '60s political group Red Ladder, concentrates on the role of art in a revolution. Osip is a critic who rejects the old classics he burns them in the stove to keep warm and believes in a new kind of art to match a new world. He is nevertheless pragmatic, while Mayakovsky is a romantic who eventually finds it impossible to toe the party line. Caught between them both, Lili asserts her right to love both men in their uncomfortable ménage à trois.

A play about the Futurists could never be conventional, and Trafford injects Mayakovsky's remarkable poetry into the story of their relationship. Mark Payton as Osip has the gravitas of a clear-sighted man who knows when to bail out and Elizabeth Mansfield makes the most of Lili's fervour. John Sackville looks impeccable as Mayakovsky: Dark, Slavic looks, Homburg hat, brightly coloured waistcoat and a tie worn eccentrically on his sleeve.

Time Out

November 10-17 2004

Review by: Teletext

A Cloud in Trousers

Theatre Royal, York, then on major UK tour to dates including Merlin Theatre Frome, Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold, Ustinov Studio Theatre (Theatre Royal, Bath)

Rating *****

There are hundreds of thousands of people on the streets, the army is disintegrating at the front, there's hardly any food to eat, the only way that you can keep warm and maybe heat through a little food is by burning your furniture and your books. The winter is drear and cold, there are daily arrests and disappearances. A good time, you'd think, to be writing groundbreaking creative poetry and declaiming your opinions to anyone who will listen.

But this is the core of Steve Trafford's new play A Cloud In Trousers, in which he explores the relationship, the steamy and often very loud ménage a trois, between the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and the Jewish couple Lili and Osip Brik. Three people who happen to collide, find a mutual regard, and respect. Things get even more complicated when it is revealed that Osip is also a tireless worker for the new order, and in particular the 'thought police' at the Cheka. In other words, he's encouraging the new freedoms, the new ways of expression, the awakening of the peasant soul - while tightly advising on their control and the direction that they should take.

Trafford is exceptional in sorting out the wheat from the chaff, the idealistic claptrap from the honest observations, and he pushes the story forward over a couple of decades by using only four actors. You may think that one set is limiting and claustrophobic, but in Trafford's hands, and with assured and observational direction from Damien Cruden, this becomes one of the most painfully, in point of fact, excruciatingly honest plays of recent years. It's like raw meat, and it hurts.

Elizabeth Mansfield is one of those rare actresses who brings an honesty to every role she plays, and with the writing she has to work with here, she's off and away and in her element. Having her marriage with the analytical Osip is one thing, but the stonking and bonking unbridled passion with Vladimir is quite another. The curious thing is that there are no long discussions on loving, honouring and obeying. Lili sees what is right (for her) and seizes the moment. Osip, quite content with what he's got, is happy to go along with the new order of this. And Vladimir, well, he can't believe his luck. He's got a woman who adores him and a comrade who gives him protection and who assures that his verses (whatever merits they may have) will be published. As long as they are judiciously edited.

Mansfield's pragmatic 'if it's going to happen, it will' attitude is a delight to watch, but it is equally matched in this always compelling ensemble piece, by John Sackville's peacock poet Mayakovsky, and Mark Payton's deliciously manipulative Osip. And then, as the cherry on this very considerably ornate icing, we have Gilly Tompkins' wonderfully laconic Annushka, the illiterate servant who has been there, seen it, done it and who has the shawl to prove it.

Simon Banham's set is perfectly atmospheric, the right mix of seediness and genteel poverty, and Judith Cloke's lighting is a lesson in building on the situation and the time. But I have to add an extra round of applause here for Christopher Madin's brilliant combination of sound and music, without which this play would be seriously hindered.

The question that Trafford asks is whether these people are genuinely creative free spirits, suffering the shackles of the Communist yoke as an expedient - are they using the system as a means to an end? Or are they really selling out, every step of the way? Are they being honest with themselves and each other, or just desperately attempting to be clever enough to survive? Is it all a sham, or are they ludicrously for real? And then he leaves his systematic and somewhat relentless questioning to us, his audience. Clever man, he provokes a discussion about what makes these people tick and function.

Your opinion, your answer will be different to mine, and that's the mark of a fascinating, must-see piece of writing. You will not emerge shrugging your shoulders, but engaged in active debate. And that's what makes this a rather exceptional play.


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