Pussy Riot: Riot Days

So, you say you want a revolution? Well, handily, Maria “Masha” Alyokhina, a founding third of Pussy Riot, wrote the book – like, actually. Her memoir Riot Days, published in 2017, reads like poetic justice, from the first inklings of post-punk Pussy Riot in 2011 to the infamous performance at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. This performance earned her a two-year sentence in one of Russia’s toughest corrective labour colonies in the Ural Mountains. Now, she’s taken her story on something of a theatrical book tour in the form of Pussy Riot: Riot Days.

The hour-long show lifts her account from page to stage in a truly mesmerising mixed media performance that feels like a larger-than-life slam competition to the tune of electronic synth. Alyokhina is accompanied by a talented keyboardist, saxophone player, and a bare chested, indefatigable male backup dancer as they hammer home the ideology of Pussy Riot, from early days to prison and release. Two large screens loop homespun video footage as Alyokhina, in her native Russian, narrates not only what Pussy Riot did and why, but how you can too.

If you’re not familiar, back in 2012, the group managed to sneak a guitar and amplifier into a particularly poignant church – it was destroyed by Stalin, and then symbolically rebuilt by Putin. Once inside, they revealed in Clark Kent / Superman fashion their signature ski masks and neon before making a run at the altar, calling out among other sacrileges, “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, chase Putin out”, and “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist”. Subsequent trials garnered international sympathy, especially in the West, from luminaries like Paul McCartney to Hilary Clinton, and even Barack Obama, who was “disappointed” in the guilty verdict with serious concerns over the musicians’ treatment.

Whereas early Pussy Riot parlance took sweeping aim at Mother Russia (authoritarianism, cronyism, patriarchy, the Orthodox Church) Alyokhina has narrowed her cause célèbre to exposing gruelling conditions of prison life not only in Russia, but throughout the world. “What happened in Russia – what happened to me – could happen anywhere” she states at the start of the show. She’s so keen to help, in fact, she’s not even supposed to be here. Russia recently slapped a travel ban on Alyokhina which specifically barred her from performing at the Fringe. Alyokhina though smuggled herself into Edinburgh by driving 1,000 km through Belarus and into EU member-state Lithuania, where she could board a flight to the UK. Now that she’s here, she’s clearly making the most of it.

Right out of the gate, Alyokhina and her coterie never let up the breakneck rhythm of the act, which is as much spoken word as interpretive dance and theatre. While there is a recognisable fugue provided by the haunting whine of a saxophone, it’s not your typical concert, so don’t expect much vocal range from anyone onstage. It’s more akin to a crash course in modern Russian politics told through an aggressively long-winded chant. At several points, members of the crowd pumped their fists in solidarity. You can’t blame them; the performance is violently evocative, and of course, revolutionary.

“Anyone can be Pussy Riot,” the subtitled screen reads. She then offers tongue-in-cheek guidance to those supporters in the crowd; Rule #1: find a lawyer. Rule #2: Remove the sim card and change your location. Rule #4: don’t show up in the expected places. Rule #9: don’t say anything without the lawyer. While it might not have worked for her, the performance is no less captivating, serving as a unique dispatch from an opaque part of the world.

 

Pussy Riot: Riot Days

Summerhall – The Dissection Room (Venue 26)

Until 19 August

Buy tickets here

 

Image: Gaelle Beri

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