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Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 20 November 2017

Review: Inside Pussy Riot at the Saatchi Gallery

14 November - 24 December 2017

“As this is a piece of immersive theatre, it doesn’t work unless you follow the rules”: Amelia Forsbrook reviews Les Enfants Terrible’s staging of the story of Pussy Riot.

Amelia Forsbrook
Inside Pussy Riot at the Saatchi Gallery. Photo: Kenny Mathieson.

Inside Pussy Riot at the Saatchi Gallery. Photo: Kenny Mathieson.

In the world of theatre, there’s perhaps no greater illusion of freedom than an immersive experience. When sat quietly and comfortably on seat C32, remaining silent is more an expectation than a right, but once you are pulled into an interactive world, armed with a boiler-suit and placard and told to make a scene, it would be no good for anyone if you took the spirit of rebellion in a dose greater than prescribed.

Yet, to comply to Inside Pussy Riot is to subscribe to the resistant undercurrent – for this production is spun from the recollections and anarchic spirit of Nadezhda – ‘Nadya’ – Tolokonnikova, one of three members of Pussy Riot to be convicted and imprisoned for hooliganism in 2012. The chronological narrative of this biography begins with Nadya’s arrest during her band’s ‘Punk Prayer’ stunt in a Moscow cathedral. The promenade experience continues to reveal her interrogation – a stark, uncomfortable, invasive scene – and her ‘show trial’, conducted, to a highly-strung and frantically-animated soundtrack, by a cackling, villainous judge with a Queen of Hearts flippancy. Laborious penal colony life follows, in all its futile mundanity, with bland and ineffectual tasks threatening to numb our minds to accounts read by a balaclava-clad rioter, perched in the corner of the workhouse.

Inside Pussy Riot is far from transformative. If you’ve parted with your good, hard earnings to find yourself in a contemporary art gallery – all on the strength of a picture of a balaclava on a piece of cardboard – you probably know the value of political freedom, and you probably don’t need days in solitary confinement to work out that we’ve got it better here than in Moscow. A quick introductory survey is furnished with tick boxes, through which you can cite your favourite socio-political cause. The à la carte options are cartoonish in their simplicity, and later, when we have to scream out our affirmations, the process – for all its bright, dazzling, interrogative light – feels more regulated than riotous, like clapping through the third curtain call of a show you weren’t really all that into.

That said, as a streamlined, involving biography of a compelling individual behind one of the most iconic resistance movements, presented at a time where social divisions seem all the more present and all the more vocalised, Inside Pussy Riot is something to yell down a megaphone about.

Heavy as the topic may be, Les Enfants Terribles’ production leans towards the flamboyant, the comic and the whimsical – qualities that will come as no surprise to anyone who caught the company’s Olivier-nominated Alice in Wonderland. The all-female cast members, in gaudy, circus-inspired stage makeup and jovial uniforms, bring a little big-top gothic to proceedings. Cleverly, Inside Pussy Riot uses its own theatricality as another source of power, maintaining rigid control as it pushes us back and forth between rebellion and compliance. Oliver Lansley’s script, informed by Tolokonnikova’s accounts, is ripe with a humour that bites at the constraints of authority. We’re here to “celebrate the power of protest and the freedom of speech”, asserts one performer while diligently consulting her notes with a devilishly irony. In the next scene, during our arrest, an officer barks: “As this is a piece of immersive theatre, it doesn’t work unless you follow the rules”. Her metafictionality does little to dampen the strength of her command; instead, it adds fuel to the discussion of power and subversion. Later, as we struggle to roll our necks and gyrate our bodies, crammed hip-to-hip in a prison yard, an instructor mocks our compliance: “You are doing this Soviet exercise regime because I told you to. We should all remember that we have freedom.” And with this, Inside Pussy Riot hit us with that most-oxymoronic beat of activism: the only way to obey is to rebel.

This well-controlled riot, in all its absurdity, is unlikely to motivate its audiences to change the world, but – with the exception of one particularly cruel scene – it’s fun, bold, bright and dynamic and, with that, enough to urge us to think in a new light about those who fight the dominant discourse. Inside Pussy Riot hasn’t made me stronger in my beliefs, but it has reminded me of just how lucky I am to readily have and display my own convictions, without the state’s conviction. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to make myself heard.

Inside Pussy Riot is on until 24 December 2017 at the Saatchi Gallery. Click here for more details. 

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Amelia Forsbrook

As a Wales Arts International critic, Amelia toured India with National Dance Company Wales to discover whether national identity abroad could ever amount to more than dragons, sausages and leeks. After moving to London in early 2012, Amelia has continued working as a critic and arts commentator. With particular interests in regional arts, South Asian performance, twentieth century European theatre and quirky little numbers involving improvisation, emotional outburst and abandoned buildings, Amelia writes for a number of publications, as well as being a Super Assessor for the Off West End Awards (The Offies) and Associate Editor at Bare Fiction.

Review: Inside Pussy Riot at the Saatchi Gallery Show Info


Directed by Christa Harris

Written by Oliver Lansley with Nadya Tolokonnikova

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