Inside Pussy Riot, Saatchi Gallery

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by guest critic Maeve Campbell

The performance begins on entering the Saatchi Gallery, and we are asked to fill out questionnaires on preferences of social action. These are then used to tailor our experiences of the performance. We are led into a clinical waiting room, briefed and provided with balaclavas and protest signs. From there we are taken on a journey through Pussy Riot’s experience of the Russian judicial system and labour camps they were subjected to after they stormed Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow in 2012.

Les Enfants Terrible, a company now synonymous with this experience based immersive theatre, take us through white walled holding cells, to a cathedral with neon Donald Trump and Putin effigies, to grimy prison work rooms. Each room is meticulously designed, with silly kitsch touches and pop-culture allusions. The atmosphere is intentionally jarring, particularly in the filthy prison toilet where we are left to read and hear prisoner testimonies. The use of media collage throughout the experience is beautifully curated and effectively emotive.

Some of the kitschier rooms are fun but don’t quite fit the show’s political agenda, and are symptomatic of the larger ideological issues with the piece. Never does one feel properly scared of the consequences of disobedience during the experience. The experience is just too fun. The actors recite clunky and clumsy dialogue about freedoms and public expression. We are cast as the anarchic rebels, but are made to sign a contract before entering that stipulates we must follow the rules. This irony is addressed by the actors, but an event early on makes it clear that nothing bad will happen if we don’t comply. Under the guise of freedom of expression, a member of the group does refuse to participate in much of the action, and the actors are unable to play with this.

This constant self-awareness in the piece means you are never really scared, and it’s due to a lack of context. Towards the end we are given some verbatim testimony from Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, but then move right onto another kitschy set up that forces the only emotive moment out of our minds. The corresponding exhibition is worth investing in to understand the experience more, and this should be encouraged by the Saatchi staff. The piece is good fun at times, but at the expense of substance and a message.

Inside Pussy Riot runs through 24 December.

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