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January 20, 2013
‘I want to be understood by my country, nothing more.
but if I fail to be understood –
I shall pass through my native land
at an angle, in vain,
like a shower
of slanting rain.’
The Ferguson Room in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s renovated Stratford site is spare of decoration or furnishing. Diminutive, serious-looking it feels like a boardroom without a board table. Tonight it had been set up for stand-up, yet felt bare, faceless and business-like. The audience huddled at the tables (the temperature tempted no-one from their coats and hats). Sitting no less than a yard from the small, low, lit stage, we listened to faint strains of Shostakovich and, in a distant room, the children of Stratford-on-Avon cavorting in a play-room near a lovely if Arctic bar.
Then the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky strode in from somewhere behind me, megaphone in hand, his jacket brushing my shoulder as he whipped on to the stage, stalking the space and surveying us all quietly (“taking the room”, as he later put it), asking us if we liked poetry and reading us a poem. A quiet, almost Georgian piece. He read with slight respect. A certain bemused if worn beauty arose in the room. Certain lines beguiled: ‘While blizzards bonfire / underneath the windows’. “Did we like the poem?”, he asked. Few dared put up their hands (although I did, persuaded to quiet curiosity by the blizzard image). Mayakovsky demurred, scowled, exploded. With a burst of fury he dismissed the piece (which was by one of his ‘peasant-loving’ contemporaries), screwed the poem up and threw it to the floor – from where I later retrieved it.
“The Slanting Rain” is a one-man play in which the Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky is brought crackling into life by actor Ed Hughes. This touring production blasted into the RSC Stratford this week and, despite some of the grimmest weather of the winter, seems to be playing full houses. Ed Hughes’s depiction and enactment of artistic and political fury is remarkable in its power. His performance is a true tour de force.
What is really remarkable about the play, however, is the grace of his fury, the projection that Mayakovsky was a double-act within himself, tearing himself to pieces – individualism versus collectivism; private versus public (the play is very moving on Mayakovsky’s long-term love affair with Lily Brik); and the addiction of performance versus the solitude of composition - “ten lines a day”, he glowered, gloomily turning to me, “and ten lines was a good day!” I smiled back at the poet, but worried for him. (I worried for myself.)
What happens to a popular artist when their moment had passed? When their younger contemporaries view him as a has-been or, worse, a sell out? There are fascinating pictures of Mayakovsky in his well-tailored suits, sporting his famous yellow coat, a workers’ poet-god among the factory floors of post-revolutionary Soviet Russia. “Do you like my coat? It made me stand out like the sun”. I am not sure we liked the yellow coat, but the poetry, woven into every speech, was beautifully carried and dramatic. And that was one of the singular strengths of the script: it trusted the poetry, it let it breathe and unravel and capture the room.
We will never know if this is what it was like to be one among the adoring ‘five thousand’ who flocked to Mayakovsky’s readings (the people’s poet toured the country in the 1920s like a rock star) but it is always interesting to be reminded of the power of poetry at particular moments of history. “Poetry is the heart”, Mayakovsky intoned. And later, “But love is everything”.