REVIEW: INSIDE PUSSY RIOT (Saatchi Gallery) ★★★
December 10, 2017  //  By:   //  London, Reviews  //  Comments are off

The first thing we see are the coloured balaclavas, once we’ve put our belongings into numbered lockers that correspond with the order in which we enter the room. There’s a frisson of excitement if you’re a fan of Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist collective that stormed a Moscow cathedral in 2012 with a 40 second ‘punk prayer’ that landed three of its eleven members in prison. Balaclavas on, we enter the Saatchi gallery’s mock cathedral in single file for a sermon from ‘the patriarch’ – walled in by the unedifying spectacle of Trump and Putin frozen in stained glass. We’re very quickly arrested. My fellow revolutionary and I are no longer Louisa and April – we’re 7 and 8 now, and resistance is futile.

What follows is an immersive experience from Les Enfants Terribles, walking (and kneeling) in Pussy Riot’s footsteps: through their arrest for ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, to the puppet trial that followed, and their eventual two years in a spirit-crushing penal colony.

The set design is impressive, and effort has been taken to make us feel closed in, dehumanised and somehow smaller. By contrast, the performances are pitched somewhere between cynically amused and absurd. We might be separated, ordered to work, bossed around with barked orders and left to reflect in the dark, but we never feel genuinely scared or threatened. It’s an odd combination that ends up making us feel more distant than immersed.

While there are flashes of brilliance in the execution, the main problem with Inside Pussy Riot is that there isn’t enough Pussy Riot in it. We get some speedily delivered contextual information as we move through the set, and lots of absurdist dramatisation (the court scene works best in its satirising of state corruption) – but not an awful lot of Pussy Riot’s spirit or anger. This is a missed opportunity. Some of the most powerful moments of the show are when the group’s reality is interwoven with the immersive drama, as when we are ushered into a prison toilet to read actual testimony of state perpetrated prison deaths.

The show is designed to provoke, and to remind us that we have voices to use. Much of the message is about challenging apathy – our own and others. It’s laudable and necessary – especially at the moment – and that’s why it’s such a shame the overall effect falls so short of inspiring. The lone voice in the dark urging us to stand up and be heard belonged to Pussy Riot founder Nadya Tolokonnikova. It was hairs on the back of your neck stuff. Inside Pussy Riot needs more of it.

Reviewed by April Delaney
Photo: Kenny Mathieson