Pussy Riot: ‘Politics in the guise of Art’

Entertainment

I am pressed against the wall in a crowded room, one amongst hundreds crammed inside the bar at the Royal Court Theatre to watch a dramatic reading of the final testimonies’ of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Marina Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich on the planned ‘global’ day of action to protest their detention. With an audience ranging from businessmen to babies, old women to hip teenagers it appears Pussy Riot is the new cause célèbre.

It seems impossible to have missed this story, if merely for its attention grabbing title. Three women stormed Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February dressed in bright colours and balaclavas, and performed a sign of the cross before doing a slightly aggressive version of the cancan: protesting the strong ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state to the sounds of a punk prayer. Later a video of the event appeared online. They have been in jail since March awaiting trial for the crime of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

Russia has been under pressure for a number of years now for its harsh – and some argue extremely corrupt and ‘Soviet’ – judicial system. Accusations of a lingering KGB style grip on power abound, with the case of Alexander Litvinenko seen by critics as just one of many where opposition to the regime may have brought about severe repercussions. True, as some argue there are far worse cases to highlight, but in all honesty what can compare to the media appeal of three young, attractive, punk feminists organised (along with others) under a ‘scandalous’ name. Even Madonna couldn’t resist.

Pussy Riot presents an interesting case. Here politics and art intersect, in ways which have somewhat faded in our country. When formal mechanisms for holding accountability are faulty (judicial systems, policing, press, etc) the arts provide a space for protest. Art allows for a more unique way to protest a lack of freedom of expression, and the Royal Court were motivated to support the right to question authority by putting on this performance, a theatrical event that ties into a wider political issue. As stated in Nadezhda’s testimony, Pussy Riot can be viewed as ‘politics in the guise of art’.

The three actresses (Pippa Bennett-Warner, Lydia Wilson and Lyndsey Marshal) delivered a rousing performance, transforming the bar into a Russian courtroom. Verbatim theatre is powerful; retelling stories, using the real words of real people gives it a force that other theatre sometimes lacks. The words alone, without any context, translated from the original Russian by Sasha Dugdale, are powerful speeches. Regardless of your opinions on the case the passion that seeps out of these testimonies is captivating, as Pussy Riot claims the people have lost ownership of their country.

The verdict came in later: guilty.

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