Tag Archives: Socialism

“Mayakovsky: The Slanting Rain” by Andrew Rattenbury

at the Ferguson Room, RSC on Saturday 19th January 2013

Review originally written for Exeunt.

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 ofBoris 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.

(Incidentally, I’m rather glad the RSC has chosen to bring in more visiting companies of late and I hope some of these build up to bigger collaborations in the future. It’s rather telling, however, that a decent proportion of these pieces are actually better than the main-house productions.)

“The Cherry Orchard” by Anton Chekhov

in a new version by Andrew Upton

at the Olivier Theatre, Wednesday 3rd August 2011

The Cherry Orchard has always been seen as Chekhov’s most political play. Written during a time of limbo in Russia, when no one knew the shape of the future, it is a play which always feels extraordinarily apt during periods of change. Howard Davies’ imposing production at the National Theatre is perfect for our current climate, presenting on stage the dichotomy between new and old as whole strata of society shift unpredictably.

The indignation of some that Andrew Upton’s new version of the play is ‘too modern’ is mostly unfounded; Scene II of Act One does contain a few too many contemporary colloquialisms, but throughout the rest of the play the slight references to twenty-first century speech only serve to make the play easier to understand. This version focusses on setting apart the three main ‘voices’ Chekhov represents here.

Bunny Christie’s gorgeous whitewashed-wood set evokes a sense of beauty in decay, and the juxtaposition of an old structure with new telegraph poles serves to heighten the sense of estrangement the landed classes felt in Russia in the early 1900s. Neil Austin’s ambitious lighting shows time passing and Dominic Muldowney’s dulcit music reminds us we are never far away from tragedy.

Whenever Zoe Wanamaker is on stage she diverts attention to her, creating the same effect her alter-ego Ranyevskaya has when she walks into a room. Conleth Hill’s boisterous Lopakhin is presented with enough humanity to be empathetic, but when we listen to his words it’s difficult not to see him as the villain. Wanamaker and Hill represent the old and new money at odds with one another, and are given a running commentary by Mark Bonnar’s radical and ebullient Trofimov. These are the three voices, and the ones we are drawn to throughout. Charity Wakefield and Claudie Blakley show impressive range as the two daughters.

Davies manages to pin down the reason why this play can be seen as comic; the humour is found in the tension between the different social views. We find ourselves laughing not because we are told to, but because nervous energy compels us to. Then, in an instant, as the bags are packed and the door slammed, tragedy takes over and we realise the struggle to be heard is ongoing.

“Chicken Soup With Barley” by Arnold Wesker

at the Royal Court, Wednesday 8th June 2011

It isn’t difficult to see why Dominic Cooke wanted to revive Arnold Wesker’s Chicken Soup With Barley at this point in history. Its discussion of left-wing ideas and the importance of politics in society is extremely relevent in mainstream conversation today, while the destruction and questioning of values is something which resonates across generations.

Spanning over 20 years – from 1936 to 1958 – Wesker’s play charts the progress of the Kahn fanily, considering how they cope with the war and the continued existence of an industrial, capitalist world. This Jewish, working class family are all believers in socialism, yet their conviction and preferred methods of change all differ dramatically. The conversations they have about strikes, protests and business are akin to ones which I’m sure have taken place at dinner tables all over the country in the past year.

Wesker’s writing is truly extraordinary; he manages to make the personal philosophies of the characters relevent to everyone and writes with such clarity that nothing needs to be repeated. Cooke’s direction makes each and every characters’ motives stem directly from personal experience and ensures that there is no single character who has more sympathy from the audience than the others.

There are some memorable performances here, too. All members of the central family unit are performed with brilliance. Jenna Augen as Ada, the daughter who embodies a pastoral socialism, is quiet and collected with moments of brutality. Tom Rosenthal’s Ronnie begins with anti-capitalist fervour before coping with disillusionment, and Danny Webb’s deterioration from joyful father to helpless patient is remarkable. Samantha Spiro, in the central part of the mother, Sarah Kahn, is extraordinary. She is so focussed on her beliefs that she is blind to what is happening around her, yet she seems stronger for it. It is tragic to watch this family heading towards its inevitable self-destruction.

The design by Ultz, which transforms from 30s flat to 60s apartment in the interval, is also wonderfully detailed; we see heirlooms being carried from one era to the next, as some are lost. It is a nice touch that the ‘kitchen sink’ which gives this style of drama its name is placed just below the stalls’ eyeline, out of view. Gary Yershon’s powerful music takes us from one time to a next, rallying us to the cause.

This is a near-perfect production of an astonishing play, and it comes at just the right time. Wesker never questions socialism, merely the trend which those on the left seem to set of enforcing its own collapse. As much as this play is a product of its time, it is one which has ever-present arguments and will always tug at heart strings, no matter what your political persuasion.