It is often said that underground theatre thrives where there is state oppression. And, by all accounts, Russia is currently a country where oppression is rampant. Censorship, freedoms curtailed by draconian laws, a harsh penal system, widespread corruption, centralised power – altogether not a pretty picture. So when Russian performing arts came to London last week, it was bound to be revealing. And I was not let down.
First, a completely zany, surreal, Monty Python-esque ninety minutes in the theatre at the Barbican Centre. Put on by a visiting Moscow theatre group, the play ‘A midsummer night’s dream; As you like it’ had everything. So in addition to actors acting there were five-metre high puppets, acrobats, a performing dog, singers, musicians, tumblers, the occasional fireworks, an over-large inflatable penis, and a two-tiered, tutu-dressed, teenage corps de ballet fighting off a cleaner determined to sweep them off the stage. And, as might be expected, the audience too was involved, at one time passing branches overhead from the back of the stalls to the stage, at another being sprayed with water from an apparently faulty fountain. But no one seemed to mind. And in it all we also got the story of the doomed love affair between two of Shakespeare’s original characters – Pyramus and Thisbe – watched by a quirky audience seated on stage.
It was a packed house and a glorious evening, at least for most of us. The elderly woman who headed for the exit as Pyramus’ member enlarged obviously felt differently. How all thus got past Putin’s thought police is difficult to imagine. I certainly can’t see the group being allowed to perform it in Moscow when they return home.
Next up was Leviathan, a Russian film made with Russian state funding that went on general release in The UK at the beginning of November and arrived at our local cinema last week. Referred to as ‘A new Russian masterpiece’ by the Guardian, and dubbed ‘The anti-Putin film the Russians tried to ban’ by the Spectator, this film showed acting, storytelling, and cinematography at its very best. It was a gloomy story about corruption, cronyism, poverty, alcoholism, depression and infidelity and it was riveting. Just like with the theatre group, clearly Russian creativity is inspired.
Finally, it was up a gear, and while the Shakespearean play was humorous and the film gripping, this was somehow intimate. ‘Art, sex and disobedience’ was essentially an audience with Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova and Maria (Masha) Alyokhina, two of the more celebrated (notorious) members of the Moscow-based feminist punk rock protest group ‘Pussy Riot’. Both had been arrested after their now famous impromptu ‘performance’ in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. In their colourful shirts, tights, and cagoules, words such as ‘Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away’ resulted in their arrest, trial, and a two year custodial sentence, much of which was spent in solitary confinement.
There will be many who will see their behaviour as unacceptable, but as a group who wanted to raise questions about Putin’s suitability as a leader, about the increasingly powerful Russian Orthodox Church, and about the country’s lamentable status of women’s equality, their protest was a success certainly internationally and to an extent within Russia itself.
What the 1000-strong, adoring, audience heard was part amusing, part inspiring, part disconcerting and part disarming. Amusing – at one moment they told us how knives and hot water were scarce in prison so they learned to fashion the tops of sardine tins to create cutting implements and used lit tampons to boil water. Inspiring – whether or not one is sympathetic to their ends, the risks these two young women took knowing the punishments that would almost certainly be meted out, inspired me, at least. Disconcerting – they made clear that they believed that the position in Russia was so dire that armed revolution there was essentially inevitable.
Finally to the disarming. Here in front of us were two hardened, thoughtful and still-active protesters both subject to abuse, threats and privation, who responded to questions on a London stage not with arrogance and aggression, but with warmth and charm.
This was a heady five days. My three Russian events in less than week were both an inspiring pleasure and jolt to the system. Through them one could see how, despite all the political upheavals happening in and around Russia, the protest voice there remains lively and even stimulating. The wish of people to express themselves is difficult to suppress.