Pussy Riot: performance and protest

Submitted by Matthew on 22 August, 2012 - 9:47

Nadya Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, three members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, have been sentenced to two years in jail for “hooliganism” for performing their “Punk Prayer” at Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Russia’s main Christian Orthodox place of worship.

As part of their trial on 8 August, the women read testimonies out in court. When each speech was met with applause, the Judge (Marina Syrova) responded: “We are not in a theatre.”

It was an apt response, therefore, for London’s Royal Court Theatre to stage readings of the testimonies, translated by Sasha Dugdale, on the day of the verdict, 17 August. Three actresses performed these testimonies with humility. They read directly from the scripts, retaining an appropriate distance from their speeches so as to remind the audience that they were simply vessels for the words. The readings were free and performed in the theatre bar, which was packed to capacity.

This event was a welcome accompaniment to the protest at the Russian Embassy and other solidarity actions that took place around the world, not least because these women embody political theatre. If a theatrical institution claims to be political, it should pay tribute to and agitate for these women. Despite the name, the Royal Court is a political theatre.

The Royal Court Theatre was born in 1956 in direct response to the staid and archaic theatre of the time.

Its early productions, including Edward Bond’s “Saved” and John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger”, presented a direct challenge to the state; particularly the official censors of the London stage, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office.

It was the healthy movement of playwrights, directors, actors and, most important, audience behind this theatre that eventually led to the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, and subsequently theatrical censorship at large, in 1968.

Defending Pussy Riot chimes well with the Royal Court’s raison d’etre: freedom from censorship and interference in art.

There was something uncomfortable, however, about the air of self-congratulation among some audience members at this event. It struck me that, like Madonna, Paul McCartney and David Cameron himself, it is a trend among liberal pockets of society to pat themselves on the back for being successfully “free”.

Mainstream responses to the Olympics opening ceremony were a perfect example of this. We are happy to celebrate our multiculturalism and equality within the safe parameters of performance, but less willing to protest against Olympic security providers, G4S, over their racist murder of Angolan refugee Jimmy Mubenga.

It is with this in mind, that I am somewhat cynical about the patronage of political causes within theatre establishments. Do we have a right to “observe” such politics through the refracted process of performance without then following it up with action? Or even turning our minds to millions of similar instances over which people are saying nothing at all?

Why are we not hearing about the three-year jail sentence handed (the day before the Pussy Riot trial) to Bahraini Nabeel Rajab for three peaceful protests against the oppressive Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty? Where is Madonna’s anger over that?

In Tolokonnikova’s testimony, she decries the “low level of political culture” in her society. She labels the mainstream media outlets of Russia as scandalous in their manipulation of material.

These women, by their own description, are activists and artists. In their testimonies they make it clear that they are disciples of the Russian absurdist poets of 1937, purged under Stalin.

They also refer to their own environmental activism, they criticise the role of corporations in their country’s governance, and they seek to expose the hypocrisy behind the Kremlin’s manipulation of Russian Orthodoxy for political ends.

Although they acknowledge the support of Madonna, and even David Cameron, in their testimonies, I believe they would prefer for their trial to illuminate injustices against protesters worldwide; from Nabeel Rajab to the 182 cyclists arrested for protesting peacefully outside the Olympic Stadium on 27 July.

I’d like to believe that Nadya, Maria and Yekaterina, were they London residents, would be just as active against the “low level political culture” that prevents the majority from defending our existing freedoms and public services and fighting for freedoms not yet won, such as those of migrant workers on less than a living wage. It is in this vein that we should support Pussy Riot.

So, is a reading in the Royal Court, whose sponsors include Moet & Chandon, likely to provoke any real sense of solidarity beyond champagne anarchism? Yes, I think so. In bringing those words to light, for free, they have deliver the women’s words with integrity and authenticity. It is what we do with these words that matters beyond the performance.

We, as audience and activists, must force theatres to respond to the politics around them. Perhaps the Royal Court’s commitment to a “Pussy Riot” season will provide an opportunity for work that breaks down the division between art and activism.

If the working class cannot force this, Pussy Riot fever will fade into artistic insignificance.

Pussy Riot testimonies here.

Pussy Riot lyrics here.

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