Political Theatre: Pussy Riot readings at the Royal Court

By Saraid Dodd

Nadya Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, three members of Russian punk band ‘Pussy Riot’, have been sentenced to a 2 year jail term for ‘hooliganism’  as a result of a performance of their ‘Punk Prayer’ in Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Russia’s main Christian Orthodox place of worship. As part of their trail, on 8th August, the women read  testimonials in Khamovnichesky court. When each speech was met with applause, the Judge (Marina Syrova) responded with ‘we are not in a theatre.’

It was an apt and responsible call, therefore, for London’s Royal Court Theatre to stage readings of the testimonials, translated by Sacha Dugdale, on the day of the verdict (17 August 2012). Three actresses performed these testimonials 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, with a faint, respectful edge of character. The readings were free and performed in the theatre bar, which was packed out to its fullest 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. and, if a theatrical institution claims to be political, it should be obliged to 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. It’s 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 Office. It was the healthy movement of playwrights, directors, actors and, most importantly, audience behind this theatre that eventually led to the abolition of The Lord Chamberlain Office, and subsequently theatrical censorship at large, in 1968. Defense of Pussy Riot chimes well with the Royal Court’s raison d’etre; freedom from censorship and interference in all forms of art.

There was, however, something uncomfortable about the air of self-congratulation amongst some audience members at this event. It struck me that, like Madonna, McCartney and David Cameron himself, it is a trend amongst liberal pockets of our society to pat ourselves on the back for being successfully ‘free’. Mainstream responses to the Olympics Opening ceremony were a perfect example of this. We were happy to celebrate our multiculturalism and equality within the positive and safe parameters of performance, but less willing to stand in 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 really 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 3 peaceful protests against the oppressive Sunni Al Khalifa Dynasty? Where is Madonna’s anger over that?

In Nadia Tolokonnikova’s testimonial, 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 explanation, are activists and they are artists. In their testimonials 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 openly 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 testimonials, it is my belief that 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 27th July. I’d like to believe that Nadia, Maria and Ekaterina, were they London residents, would be just as active against the ‘low level political culture’ that prevents the majority from defending our existent freedoms and public services and fighting for freedoms not yet won, such as those of migrant workers on less than living wage. It is in the same vein as these struggles, then, that we should embrace support for Pussy Riot.

So is a reading in The Royal Court, one of whose sponsors is Moet & Chandon, really able to provoke any real sense of solidarity beyond champagne anarchism? Yes, I think so. In bringing those words to light, for free, they have done the most direct and responsible thing that a theatre could do, and that is deliver the women’s words with integrity and authenticity. It is what we do with these words that matters beyond the performance. It is important not to allow theatres that produce new writing of political content to become divorced from political activism.  But the only way that this will happen is if we, as audience and activists, 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 and allows us to look in on our own hypocrisies and the global oppression of ‘narrow corporate interests’. If this is not something that can be taken up by the working class, Pussy Riot fever will fade into artistic insignificance.
Read the Pussy Riot Testimonials  at: http://www.mptmagazine.com/feature/pussy-riot-testimonies-59/

Advertisements

About esthertownsend

Socialist feminist

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: