Pussy Riot – The Haunt – 18th November 2017

Pussy Riot – The Haunt
Photo by Mat Thomas

We’re all familiar with the story. Real life, though extreme enough to be straight out of a film script. Hailing from another country, in what may as well be another world and time dimension, Pussy Riot plunged into the public consciousness back in 2012. This feminist, avant-garde punk collective gave the patriarchy a defiant middle finger, with their planned anti-Putin protest in a prominent place of worship, publicly perceived as sacrilege at best and hooliganism at worst. The worst prevailed, leaving three of the women in the harshest of prisons on the grounds of religious hatred and hooliganism, where two of them would spend a further two punishing years.

And now freedom… or is it, questioned Maria Alyokhina in this touring show, the spirited sidekick to fellow freedom fighter, Nadya Tolokonnikova. Theirs are the two best-known faces of this revolutionary movement, and youthful faces at that – they had barely entered their 20s at the start of their prison sentences – which accompanied international headlines throughout their incarceration. Outrage reverberated around the globe. Even a balaclava-clad Madonna took up their cause, taking to the stage at her sold out 2012 Moscow gig in the name of freedom of expression, the collective’s name daubed on her bare back.

Pussy Riot at The Haunt this week turned out – unexpectedly for many in the audience, one imagines – to be Maria’s sole interpretation of her time in incarceration. No more double act with Nadya, who has gone her separate way and currently has her own immersive theatre piece at London’s Saatchi Gallery. This was not even a gig, per se. Yes, live synths, percussion and saxophone combined to provide a suitably nightmarish, cacophonous soundscape throughout, but the tour manager appeared on stage at the start, to explain that what we were about to see unfold was a ‘drama’. I suspect many still held out hopefully for the band and the balaclavas to bust out a characteristically riotous set after the ‘theatre’. Not an unreasonable expectation, given this punk collective’s notoriety. Alas, no. Instead, this was an unrelenting, near 90 minutes of Russian, spoken word polemic, delivered by just four performers against a backdrop of footage and subtitles, detailing the rise and fall of Pussy Riot. If the incessant, barking nature of the script, sax and synths were in any way aimed at conveying the oppression of the prison experience, then this was a resounding success. Likewise, the stifling nature of The Haunt as a venue – why are audiences always packed in without a millimetre to spare, making for a less than pleasant gig experience? As the piece drew to a close, the audience was palpably uncertain if the night was over, or if the band were about to burst on to the stage, guitars and all. After bemused applause and a still tangible anticipation of more, on went the house lights and out shuffled the crowd, plenty of whom felt confused, short-changed and having been somewhat mis-sold.

Perhaps the lesson learned here is that Pussy Riot is an anarchic art movement, embracing expression in multiple forms. It is not a band in the traditional sense, though many had come along expecting this, their hopes only to be dashed.

Kelly Westlake
Photos by Mat Thomas

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Twitter: twitter.com/pussyrrriot