Talking about a revolution

A Cloud in Trousers puts free love and poetry back into the life of Vladimir Mayakovsky
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The Independent Culture

The Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky is one of the most powerful and tragic figures of the Russian Revolution. His poems and Futurist propaganda posters were instrumental in spreading the Soviet word to the people after the events of 1917. But by the end of the 1920s, he was disillusioned with the petty party bureaucracy that had swamped the grand dreams of the revolution, and he felt stifled by Stalin's leadership. In 1930, he committed suicide.

The Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky is one of the most powerful and tragic figures of the Russian Revolution. His poems and Futurist propaganda posters were instrumental in spreading the Soviet word to the people after the events of 1917. But by the end of the 1920s, he was disillusioned with the petty party bureaucracy that had swamped the grand dreams of the revolution, and he felt stifled by Stalin's leadership. In 1930, he committed suicide.

A Cloud in Trousers, a new play by Steve Trafford that sheds light on Mayakovsky's life, will have its world premiere in October. Directed by Damian Cruden, artistic director of the York Theatre Royal, it concentrates on his ménage à trois with the publisher Osip Brik and Brik's wife, Lili, in the years from 1915 up to his death. The intimate piece will open in the Theatre Royal Studio before setting off on a nationwide tour.

Cruden is keen to uncover the less documented side of Mayakovsky, who is traditionally portrayed as a Soviet hero, declaiming his poems to the workers in a strident voice. "He is so much more than that," Cruden says. "He is a man who saw the world from a place other than the place we see it from."

Trafford has incorporated his own versions of translations of the poems throughout the play, using Mayakovsky's abstract love lyrics alongside his angrier "punk" poetry. The play shares its title with Maya-kovsky's most celebrated poem, which combines revolutionary imagery with the inner turmoil of a spurned lover.

For Cruden, the dramatic interest lies in the relationships between the three characters and the way they are "analogous of the bigger picture of where artists and individuals 'sat' in that period of time". He hopes to depict in Mayakovsky, played by John Sackville, "the conflict between being an artist and being an artist of the Revolution and the conflict between the individual and the collective".

The production is the result of a collaboration with Ensemble, the company formed by Trafford and Elizabeth Mansfield (who will play Lili Brik) in 2000. Ensemble showcases new works and explores the relationship between music and text. For A Cloud in Trousers, Cruden has worked with Chris Madin to produce an original score, influenced by the jazz and classical music of the period, which will be recorded live by a seven-piece group. The set draws inspiration from Maya- kovsky's own bold propaganda images and has a "strong feel of the graphics of the time".

Cruden most recently worked with Ensemble on Hymn to Love - Homage to Piaf, in which Mansfield took the title role. He is relishing the opportunity to work with the group again, and takes inspiration from Maya-kovsky's belief in the power of art to change the world for the better. "As an artist, that is what you hope to achieve, in small part, with any piece of work you present to an audience," says Cruden.

'A Cloud in Trousers', York Theatre Royal Studio (01904 623568) 1 to 23 October; then touring to 11 December ( www.ensemble-online.com)

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