In the Penal Colony: Inside Pussy Riot at the Saatchi Gallery

Inside Pussy Riot at the Saatchi Gallery. Photo courtesy of Kenny Mathieson. Design by Zoe Koperski.

I was kneeling handcuffed on the floor of a church in a knitted red balaclava – not my average Thursday evening by a long shot. Audience members at Inside Pussy Riot relieve the arrest of three members of the subversive Russian punk band who were charged with hooliganism and sent to a brutal penal colony in 2012. Les Enfants Terribles and Bird&Carrot’s immersive theatrical experience is over the top in every sense. Amid the earnest political statements, an inventive sense of immersive theatre’s possibilities culminates in a convincing call to action.

For those unfamiliar with the story, five members of the punk collective gave an impromptu performance of “Punk Prayer: Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich were charged with “premeditated hooliganism” and “religious hatred” soon afterwards and sentenced to two years in a punishing penal colony. The international community was justifiably outraged, with Paul McCartney, Madonna and Björk voicing their support for the women.

Inside Pussy Riot came about when Tolokonnikova approached immersive theatre specialists Les Enfants Terribles to collaborate on a show. The theatre company’s previous outings have recreated Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland beneath Waterloo station and invited guests to dinner with Roald Dahl’s grotesque couple Mr and Mrs Twit. Here too audience members can expect to be fully embedded in the action, donning Pussy Riot’s iconic knitted balaclavas to relive their ordeal, from the group’s anarchic Moscow performance to their imprisonment.

The show ditches realism from the off. Zoe Koperski’s surreal set design and the ensemble’s frenzied acting style create a strange clash of tones: we know that what we’re seeing is a reflection of the real suffering of Tolokonnikova and the other band members, but it’s filtered through a lens of high artifice with an off-the-wall sense of humour. There are times when things feel forced, and the gimmick-laden trial scene veers dangerously close to something you’d see in the London Dungeon. For the most part, however, the design is a feast for the eyes: Nineteen Eighty-Four reimagined in drab Seventies pastel.

The hardest thing about immersive theatre is breaking down the audience’s inhibitions. Perhaps it’s a British habit of viewing life from a wry ironic distance, but art like this demands you engage with it on a level far beyond traditional proscenium arch theatre. Despite the harrowing subject matter, it is sometimes hard to take the actors seriously when they inform you your rights have been taken away like overzealous school matrons. At the climax of the hour’s experience, however, it was clear that most of the audience members had committed to the world that had been created.

Part of this is because Les Enfants Terribles have enough experience in immersive theatre to understand that many of us are unlikely to completely suspend our disbelief. Their ingenious solution is to make this part of the performance. We’re constantly reminded that what we’re experiencing isn’t real, and more worryingly that the way we blindly follow orders in the experience mirrors the way we are silent in the face of oppression in wider society. One particularly uncomfortable scene explores what audience members will do when told that non-compliance means they will be removed from the experience.

The company perhaps realise that the most likely people to buy a ticket to the event are liberals who are horrified by the way Pussy Riot and others like them have been treated yet do little or nothing to stand up to those in power. We’re told near the end of our journey that if everyone who criticised Trump on Twitter stood in the streets together and refused to leave until the administration changed, Trump would be ousted within a week. This may be idealistic, but it’s certainly something to mull over.

Inside Pussy Riot is a conceptually ambitious and visually stunning experience that forces us to re-evaluate how we stand up for what we believe in. Seeing the horrific things Tolokonnikova faced inside the penal colony can’t help but make us reflect on how rarely we put our own safety and comfort on the line for the values we espouse. If this performance makes at least one political activist out of a bleeding-hearted liberal like myself it will be a tremendous force for good.

Inside Pussy Riot continues at the Saatchi Gallery until December 24.

Simon Fearn

About Simon Fearn

Simon is a student at Durham University and aspiring theatre critic. He has reviewed at the Edinburgh Fringe with EdFringeReview and is Stage Editor for Durham’s student newspaper, Palatinate. He has also written music reviews for W!zard Radio and Cuckoo Review.

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