Review: ★★★ Inside Pussy Riot – Saatchi Gallery

Review: ★★★ Inside Pussy Riot – Saatchi Gallery

On my way out of the immersive Inside Pussy Riot experience, emerging blinking from a simulated Russian labour camp into the entirely antithetical Christmas lights of wealthy Sloane Square, I pick up a helpful leaflet. ‘What can I do against this totalitarian machine?” it invites me to ask. A good question – if not one that I’m sure Pussy Riot helped me to answer. But at least now I know what I’m fighting against.

Inside Pussy Riot is brilliant fun, of course – by the producers of Olivier Nominated Alice’s Adventures Underground how could it not be? On arrival the audience are sat in a waiting room and handed political placards and brightly coloured balaclavas, the better to “transform personality into protest power”. We wander nervously into the first scene, a riotous and cleverly designed parody of a cathedral, featuring Putin, Trump and May in the stained glass windows – and are arrested, as Pussy Riot were, on charges of hooliganism.

That’s where the fun really begins. We are shepherded through various parts of the Russian justice system by a succession of prison guards in pink trousers, and subjected to all manner of bizarre instructions. We stand in the dock of a cavernous puppet court, where we are sentenced by a jerking puppet judge to “21 minutes” of hard labour. We perform Soviet exercises. We are told to stand, sit, sew with a broken sewing machine, copy out the national anthem.

Within the complex, wonderfully designed maze of bureaucracy (designed by Zoe Koperski), there are moments of deep, thought-provoking truth. For me, a highlight has to be the moment the absurdity is stripped back and in a pitch black claustrophobic cell, the voice of Pussy Riot punk Nadya Tolokonnikova resonates through headphones. It is a call to arms within an intimate moment; no distractions, just reality – which in that moment is terrifying. But other voices are lost. During our time in the labour camp, we are read the horrifying stories of actual prisoners, but have to fight to hear them over the barked orders of the guards.

This is a problem that pervades Inside Pussy Riot. The tension between the desire to entertain and the desire to inspire genuine political action. For example, we are invited to examine our own complicity. “You have just spent an hour doing what you are told by actors,” a stern prison guard reminds us. Well, yes – but that’s how immersive theatre works. I like to think that if a dramatic, flouncing Russian appeared before me in real life and demanded I count pennies for some unknown purpose, I would probably put up more of a fight.

I think possibly the problem is that I enjoyed it. I had fun being barked at by prison guards and watching the puppet Putin in the puppet court, and donning a green balaclava. I had fun and I never felt any sense of danger, or threat. Inside Pussy Riot has done a brilliant job of creating an entertaining experience, but for me it comes at the expense of any meaningful inspiration to political action. We hold placards up and shout affirmations at the camera but it feels contrived, rather than a genuine condemnation of Putin, racism, totalitarianism and everything wrong with the world. And then we’re out. Outside Pussy Riot, as it were, in the Saatchi Gallery in one of London’s wealthiest boroughs, where “this totalitarian machine” feels rather far away.


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