As newspapers focus as much on medals as human rights abuses now that the 2014 Winter Olympics have started, this piece of verbatim theatre seeks to remind us of what has been lost and how much is still at stake for lesbians, gays and bisexuals living under the current Russian regime.
Pieced together from interviews, stories and personal recollections, it’s an updated version of a scratch performance at the King’s Head Theatre last August, staged as a response to the passing into Russian law of anti-gay legislation banning gay ‘propaganda’ in public life.
With its first night timed to coincide with the Winter Olympics opening ceremony and each performance updated to include any breaking news, the show reflects the crucible for civil rights and international moral responsibility that Sochi 2014 has become. Five actors in jumpsuits in the Olympic colours burst on to the Hope Theatre’s stage in full power ballad mode, punching the air as they sing a cringingly generic anthem written for the event. The effect is a Disney cartoon of togetherness where Mickey’s been pumped full of drugs and shoved, glaze-eyed, in front of a camera, a gun to his head.
Much of what follows, as the five actors shift between different roles and voices and the show segues into soundbites from a shades-wearing Putin and members of his administration, will be familiar if you keep up with the news. The awful absurdity of the bigoted views espoused by Vitaly Milonov – the politician behind the anti-propaganda legislation – filled headlines after his confrontation with the actor Stephen Fry during interview.
It’s easy to laugh at Milonov’s blinkered stupidity, to snigger at comments that gays “spend their days in idleness and live off strange income from art shows” or – as has happened this weekend – to write mocking columns about the campness of Friday’s opening ceremony. But while sending up the Russian administration is one way of undermining it, too much glibness is distancing. We risk focusing on how much more enlightened we believe ourselves to be, than on how awful life actually is for those ruled by the powerful people we have granted cartoon-like proportion
Playwright Tess Berry-Hart, the curator of Sochi 14’s chorus of voices, acknowledges this. She juxtaposes the familiar sloganeering of politicians in Russia and Europe with tales of everyday horror: of people ostracised from their communities, hunted down, persecuted and beaten by friends and family because of their sexuality. Alongside the awful trend of filmed gay-bashings, we hear lesser told testimony to the isolation and fear of being homosexual in close-knit rural Russia, where there’s none of the cushioning – however thin – that comes with city life.
If you’re remotely left-wing, and have a heart, you’ll likely find no earth-shattering revelations here. The powerful pull of Sochi 14 is in Berry-Hart’s deepening and broadening of the picture, as the victims of of Russia’s anti-gay legislation are able to speak for themselves. It’s in these snapshots that Sochi 14 packs its greatest punch, in the zoom inwards from the carefully couched statements of ultimately meaningless condemnation issued by compromised Western governments and a spineless International Olympic Committee.
Putin’s promise that no gay athletes will be arrested and that political protests will be allowed – in small numbers and miles from Sochi – is perfunctory lip-service paid to self-interested international concerns. It offers no comfort to the Russian lesbian who fears she is going to lose her daughter. Stephanie Beattie’s delivery of her words is quietly devastating: tentative, fragile and utterly terrified. It’s in moments like this that David Mercatali’s production is at its best: when the performances are given time to breathe and speak for themselves.
Elsewhere, the show’s self-conscious theatricality results in tonal uncertainty. A mafia-esque Putin and a simpering Russian athlete are part of its unsteady swing between broad satire and realism. And the choice to portray the men and women responsible for persecuting LGBT Russians on the streets as textbook thugs – one even has a Scouse accent – is a disappointing pandering to stereotypes. Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the hate crimes sweeping Russia is that they are being carried out by ordinary people, not moustache-twirling baddies.
But none of this blunts the impact of Sochi 14’s overriding point: that we cannot turn a blind eye to the plight of LGBT Russians once the media spotlight of the Winter Olympics has ceased. Some argue that parallels drawn between the inflammatory language used by Russian politicians today and the anti-Semitic rhetoric preceding the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany are overblown. But it’s impossible to hear – aloud, as here – the demands for LGBT organ donation to be banned and gay men’s hearts to be burned after death without being chilled to the bone.
We Do Not Have Them in This City: the Exeunt interview with Tess Berry-Hart.