Fringe Review: Pussy Riot: Riot Days

In Pussy Riot: Riot Days, the Russian punk collective dreams of a different history.

“Do I have the right to do this or am I a barbarian?” asked Maria Alyokhina (Masha), right before Pussy Riot invaded Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral and staged their infamous ‘punk prayer’ (reciting: Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin). Masha’s interlocutor affirmed that she did, indeed, have the right: “After all, it’s not like you’re going to murder an old woman,” alluding to the sin in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

This allusion sets the stage to a joyous, bizarre, and ultimately satisfying mash-up of sound, song, and recital that situates itself on a history of resistance and revolution. The group riffs on the radical politics and art that have come before it: mentioned are Russian anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin, Fidel Castro (“A revolution is not a bed of roses,”) Guy Debord of the Situationist International, alongside many more overt and covert references. Though Putin is most famously in their cross-hairs, it is clear from the get-go that Pussy Riot’s fight is much more ambitious than that.

Centre stage, Masha performs as intensely and confidently as one might expect. Based on her book ‘Riot Days,’ the show serves as a genealogy of her arrest —from planning, to capture, to prison and the aftermath. Minute but fascinating details are divulged, like how the group managed to circumvent security to sneak an electric guitar into the Cathedral. All of this is communicated in rapid Russian in Masha’s husky voice over a blaring trumpet, saxophone, drums and programmed beats. Other members also participate by speaking or rapping, drumming or interspersing the performance with occasional bursts of Soprano-like singing.

Pussy Riot perform in Adelaide (Photo: Tony Kearney)

This results in the blasting of the senses—at one point, even water is being hurled at you by male member Sasha, who is also an intense and charismatic performer. A screen playing relevant footage is situated directly behind the group, rendering the images only half-visible. Your eyes are in a constant state of confusion, unsure whether to watch the subtitles on top of the screen or the action unfurling on the stage below. It is a difficult show to follow, yet this flux of sensory information provokes a sense of urgency that is perhaps intended. The experience is a brilliant whirlwind, you must let it spin you around.

Pussy Riot’s original punk prayer only managed to grasp “40 seconds of time / 40 seconds of crime” before it was disrupted by Cathedral security.  Riot Days last over an hour and a half, managing to hold audience attention with a delicate balance of politics, tenderness, and humour. Masha shows her vulnerability when she hints at falling in love with a fellow inmate, or when she compares her first hunger strike with the experience of first love—“very confusing”. When pardoned by Putin 21 months into her prison sentence, Masha exclaims: “Everybody needs amnesty here but me.” Humour is inserted with utterances like “Putin peed his pants,” and “We ate whatever God made available to us, which was mainly pasta.” This injection of emotion and light-heartedness allows the show, which is so impassioned and forceful otherwise, to steer clear of monotony.

Water is sprayed into the RCC Fringe crowd (Photo: Tony Kearney)

Folded into the mix is also a strong dose of memorable, feel-good catchphrases: “Riot is a beauty”, “Cripples are strong”, and “In Russia, there are no women priests. In Russia, there are Pussy Riot. The show’s centre of gravity is not Putin, or the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church (who, we’re told, vacations on a $680,000 yacht). Rather, it is religious and cultural patriarchy (“Magdalena was a feminist,”) kleptocracy, and the carceral state (“Banish prisons!”) This last point is important—prior to the performance, the audience is informed that Masha and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Nadya) created MediaZona, an alternative media outlet dedicated to fighting for prisoner’s rights. All donations and proceeds of merchandise are funneled into this fight, and it has now become one of the most successful media outlets in Russia.

While imprisoned, Masha was handed a note wishing her “a simple women’s happiness”. Pussy Riot: Riot Day is an abject disavowal of such advice—down with simple women’s happiness, and up with discontentment. The group’s indignation appears genuine on stage, and their mash-up of gig theatre is an excellent vehicle to transmit some of this anger. Accused of “causing moral suffering and shock” by a witness for the prosecution, Pussy Riot: Riot Days operates from a similar place incentive: moral shock at corrupt systems causing daily injustices, in Russia or elsewhere. The group says they “dream of a different history,” and last night the audience was energised by their punk prayer. Down with happiness, up with discontentment.

Pussy Riot: Riot Days was performed at The Attic, RCC Fringe on Wednesday, February 27

Pussy Riot: Riot Days
February 27 – March 3

The Attic, RCC Fringe
Tickets

Pussy Riot live in concert
Thursday, March 7

Maths Lawns, RCC Fringe
Tickets

Header image:
Tony Kearney / RCC Fringe

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