Features Q&A and Interviews Published 28 January 2014

We Do Not Have Them in Our City

Tess Berry-Hart on Sochi 2014, a rapid-response play protesting Putin’s anti-gay legislation.

Alice Saville

“We do not have them in our city,” said Sochi’s mayor, Anatoly Pakhomov, of gay people. Behind the incredulous sighs of a media that’s closely watching Russia in the run up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, fascinated in turn by the country’s suppression of LGBT freedoms, the rumbling threat of terrorism, and the unveiling of the event’s in-no-way-misleadingly rainbow-hued volunteer uniforms, Tess Berry-Hart is probably frantically adding this latest colourful arc in her narrative. As the writer of the King’s Head Theatre’s verbatim response piece to the furore over Russian LGBT rights in the run up to the games, she’s committed to “do my best to incorporate all the various goings on as they happen – the play starts with the federal anti-gay propaganda law being announced, and it ends at the present day at whatever new event has just happened.”

Her involvement started with a phone call from the theatre; “there were all those awful stories coming out of Russia, when the artistic director Adam [Spreadbury-Maher] rang up and said ‘I think there’s a play in here – could you find some Russians and create a rapid response piece?’ This was in August and my first thought was ‘how am I going to do this, I only know a few Russians and I’m eight months pregnant so I can’t really get on a plane and go and find any.'” After an awkward start where “the people I found were very reluctant to talk to me. The law had just been passed and they didn’t really know who this strange person on the other end of the telephone was,” Berry-Hart circulated questionnaires through activist organisations in Russia, and then rang or Skyped anyone with stories that particularly stood out. From then on, “it was a question of who wanted to stand up and be counted and add their voices, anonymously or under their own names. Word spread and I ended up with more stories than I ever could have actually used. As we saw each other across the computer screen a relationship of trust built itself, I suppose. They started to feel that someone outside Russia wanted to help them, and to hear their voices.”

The resulting play features five actors playing 50 characters in “a kind of Brechtian epic, it’s almost the voice of the people” – my conversation with Berry-Hart was scattered with names and stories, of well known players in the story like Stephen Fry, as well as Pussy Riot, straight-washed national heroes like Tchaikovsky, Russian civil rights activists, and of the momentous, terrible events influencing ordinary people. It must have been a gruelling process, so many interviews over such a short space of time, with a new baby – “all of them had a real resonance and a real pathos because when people are trusting you with their stories, you don’t feel one of them is more important that another.”

Masha Geesen

Activist Masha Geesen

Still, she particularly highlighted the powerful experience of speaking to the activist Masha Gessen, who “as part of one of the very few out families in Russia was specifically targeted by anti gay politicians in order to bring in a new law of actually taking gay families’ children away. And so she had to get her oldest son who was adopted out of the country very quickly, then make arrangements for the rest of the family to flee. I didn’t want it to come across as exploitation theatre, but as a mother myself and a bisexual myself I can’t imagine how frightening that feeling must be, that someone’s coming after you to take your children away because of your private life, that’s just absurd.” Other stories include that of a young gay man who goes on an internet date only to discover it’s a trap by a neo-fascist group, and is beaten, then blackmailed by the police he goes to for help.

But as Berry-Hart points out, there’s some “unintentional humour in the play too; when you read some of the anti-gay rhetoric they use it’s quite horrifying, but in a way quite hilarious as well.” A recent Vice documentary, alongside sobering and brutal footage of police and vigilante treatment of LGBT people, featured a politician explaining, in equally serious terms, that the tolerance of homosexuality had led to a surge in “zoo brothels” in the West. Berry-Hart feels that this humour comes out of a sense in Russia “that they have the moral high ground – they’re subject to such a big right wing conversative push at the moment, and there’s always been a drive to see russia as the antidote to the decadent West. This stance on gay rights is just another facet of that.”

Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Her first experience of Russia was on a school trip when the walls had just come down. It was all very drab – there was no light, no cars, and hardly any people in the streets. They took us to an ice cream parlour which was effectively someone’s kitchen with a big basin of semi-melted ice cream in it. People had market stalls and were selling items of clothing that we wouldn’t even give to a jumble sale – odd socks and ripped old jeans and that kind of thing.” Returning 16 years later, “it was unrecognisable, just transformed – new arcades, shopping centres, roads packed with traffic.” Maybe some part of the humour comes from the jarring disjunct between this glitzy new Russia and its preservation, or resuscitation, of older modes of living – the same divide that means Russia can host a world sporting event, even as Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has exposed its prisons as little removed from the old gulags, and the country moves closer back to the Soviet intolerance that imprisoned hundreds of gay men each year.

This play’s latest incarnation – it’s been rewritten on the basis of new interviews since its scratch performance at the King’s Head in September – has a new section on this complex, heavily politicised history of homophobia in Russia. Given that Russia decriminalised homosexuality in 1993, the reasons behind the recent series of government laws designed to limit homosexual behaviour by outlawing so-called propaganda and demonstrations of more than one person seems a bit surprising.

To Berry-Hart, “it’s to do with the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox church, but it’s also because they never had the sexual revolution and the feminist movement we had in the West, and socially talking women and men aren’t equal. Without gender equality you can’t have gay rights.” I wondered how easy it was, as a writer confronted with so many different viewpoints – some of her sources felt Russia post-propaganda law was an impossible place to live, others saw no change – to come down into one, strongly held political interpretation.

She’s recently taken part in a Cambridge Union debate on whether we should boycott the Winter Olympics, but agrees that “it’s tough, because as a writer you’re trained to see all sides of the debate, and I enter into all the different points of view of my characters – taking a stance is alien to me. But even if I don’t consider myself an overly political person it does seem to come out in verbatim theatre. My last piece was exposing the problems in the criminal justice system, and here I felt it was very important to maintain the spotlight on treatment of LGBT people in Russia, I don’t know if I would feel so moved if it didn’t have a tiny bit of a political nature. It’s lovely to feel, as an artist, that you’re actually making a difference, as opposed to just sitting in your room, typing your fantasies.”

Talking so much about the politics, I realised that my sense of all this research as a play was getting buried. These interviews feel as though they could be turned into anything – why not a documentary, or an article, or a book? Berry-Hart was conscious of “the challenge of trying to make verbatim theatre theatrical, as opposed to a series of talking heads – I’ve tried to make this a theatrical experience, as opposed to an article, or a documentary, by thinking of the characters as embued by the circumstances in which we interviewed them. We [she’s worked closely in rehearsals with her partner David Mercatali, the play’s director] are using a lot of creativity in how the actors transform into each other – we’d like it to be an enjoyable piece of theatre and not just a living testament of voices. Some of the stories they told me about were quite graphic or violent so I’ve tried to express those on stage, and others have turned out as incredibly powerful monologues or meditations on how the new laws had made them feel.”

Another, slenderer incentive to stage these stories is that “the publishing world is having a bit of a dip at the moment, but the theatre world has never had any money and we’re just used to making things happen – the rest of the world has yet to catch up on that. I’d love to take it to Russia – imagine doing it in the Kremlin – but obviously that won’t happen, or not in my lifetime. At the moment the definitions of gay propaganda are so nebulous that simply looking gay, or attractively gay according to some versions of the law, is enough to get you in trouble.” Although this play can’t necessarily bring its sources the help they need, it’s verbatim approach means that “the audience don’t have that fourth wall effect where they switch off and think ‘Ahh this is a lovely story’ or ‘Ooohh that’s a bit violent but it’s not real, it’s just actors on a stage.’ If you know that humans have really said or experienced those things you have to work really hard to not let it affect you. It had that effect on us – you think ‘Oh my god that really happened’, and that shakes you up a bit.”

Although the Winter Olympics can feel both geographically and emotionally distant to a country that’s only snowy sport expertise is in curling (maybe because only we know the rules), the volcanic mass of problems concealed under their snow-white surface simmer in this country too – the Home Office is notorious for its poor treatment of LGBT asylum seekers, and only released the detained Russian activist Ira Putilova after huge, embarrassing public pressure.  As Berry-Hart emphasises, “a lot of people think the Pussy Riot release and Greenpeace amnesty is Putin doing his best to do a PR job. Protests against the propaganda law during the Sochi Games are only allowed ten miles away from the athlete’s village, whereas in this country under Section 28 we could actually take to the streets and protest about it- the words of this law are similar but the effect is far more draconian.” She comes across as intensely political, whatever she says to the contrary, and this play sounds like a kind of densely populated, close-knit protest, unfurling its banner even further away than Khosta park.

Sochi 2014 is at the Hope Theatre, London, from 4th February to 1st March 2014. 100% of profits from all performances will be donated to SPECTRUM

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B