Inside Pussy Riot: Sassy Protest Theatre Or Punk Prayer Fallen On Deaf Ears?

Inside Pussy Riot ★★★☆☆

Inside Pussy Riot: Sassy Protest Theatre Or Punk Prayer Fallen On Deaf Ears? Inside Pussy Riot 3
Inside Pussy Riot © Kenny Mathieson

On entering the clean, whitewashed walls of the Saatchi Gallery, in a posh patch of Chelsea, to see an anti-establishment show about the punk-fuelled struggles of Pussy Riot, our first thought is: it’s just not very, well, punk, is it?

Once we’ve pulled on a woolly balaclava, been assigned an identification number and handed over our social media deets (which creepily resurface in the show), we swap the high-ceilinged gallery for a series of claustrophobic rooms meant to reflect the experience of Nadya Tolokonnikova and her two comrades.

The activist spent two years in a penal colony for a 40-second, anti-Putin performance in a Moscow cathedral, and her heartfelt words urging us to stand up and speak out for what we believe in are the highlight of the show. It’s a pity there aren’t more contemplative scenes like this — but we guess you can’t spend the whole hour in solitary confinement.

Inside Pussy Riot © Kenny Mathieson

Real-life horrors faced by Russian prisoners are glimpsed and gone too soon; lights dim before you finish reading all the injustices meted out to prisoners, and you struggle to hear Pussy Riot’s words over the din of a prison officer. But what it lacks in facts it makes up for in fun: The raving, hammer-slinging judge-on-puppet-strings and her jury of one: a giant-sized nodding dog is a captivating and hilarious portrayal of the absurdity of the repressive Russian state and judicial system.

Inside Pussy Riot © Kenny Mathieson

Shrieks of “get into line” and “eyes down” from the brilliantly badass all-female cast are all it takes for our timid group to fall into formation. This reminds us just how much guts it takes to don a balaclava and stick it to the system, especially when the repercussions aren’t being ejected from an immersive theatre show you’ve paid over £20 for, but a lengthy prison sentence in a Russian gulag.

Inside Pussy Riot © Kenny Mathieson

Post-show, two Moscow-residing audience members tell us staging something like this in Russia would still be unthinkable. Inside Pussy Riot might not be the harrowing re-enactment it set out to be, but it’s a reminder that in some places, just engaging in the arts is a radical act. We should have felt the weight of the Kremlin and its sinister ministers breathing down our necks. Instead, we felt like the show had been made palatable for its perceived “privileged” audience, and in doing so it lost its nerve — something Pussy Riot would never do.

Watch a Canvas Originals interview with Nadya below or if you'd prefer to see powerful protest art without the theatrics, there’s always the brilliantly haunting, free exhibition downstairs: Art Riot: Post-soviet Actionism.

Inside Pussy Riot, Saatchi Gallery, £21.50+ bf, book ahead, until 24 December 2017.  Art Riot: Post-soviet Actionism, Saatchi Gallery, free, just turn up, until 31 December 2017.

Last Updated 21 November 2017