Covid-19 Alert

NZ is ALERT LEVEL 4 LOCKDOWN for Auckland & north and ALERT LEVEL 3 for the rest of New Zealand.
Scan QR Codes & turn on Bluetooth | Save Lives | Be Kind

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Review: Pussy Riot (San Fran, 12 March) Wgtn Fringe Festival

The Coffee Bar Kid checks out Russian counter culture legends Pussy Riot and how art will always triumph over the great machine of conformity, regardless of the adversity.


One of the most anticipated acts at this year’s Wellington Fringe Festival was Pussy Riot, The group gained global notoriety when five members of the group staged a performance inside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior in 2012 which was condemned as sacrilegious by the Orthodox clergy and eventually stopped by church security officials. The protest was directed at the Orthodox Church leaders' support for Putin during his election campaign and was a great embarrassment to Putin. Although not directly accredited, the action led, on March 3, 2012, to two of the group members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina being arrested and charged with hooliganism (still a crime in Russia).

A third member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was later arrested on March 16. All three were denied bail, and held in custody until their trial began in late July. Subsequently hey were convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred", and each sentenced to two years' imprisonment. That was finally appealed October with Samutsevich being freed on probation and her sentence suspended. However, the sentences of the other two women were upheld.

You need to know all this going into the show because this ‘work’ as it was based around Alyokhina’s book Riot Days, which tells the story of her journey and what followed. The trial and sentence attracted considerable attention and criticism, particularly in the West, where Pussy Riot still enjoy a great deal of support. Their case was adopted by human-rights groups, including Amnesty International.

However, public opinion at home in Russia was generally less sympathetic towards them, and this is a point well made throughout the show. Having served 21 months, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were released in December 2013, after the State Duma reluctantly sucame to international pressures and approved an amnesty.

Both Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova stood down as members of Pussy Riot, but joined to perform with them during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, where group members were attacked with whips and pepper spray by Cossacks who were employed as security guards.

Their story and plight was recently included in an exhibition at Wellington’s City Gallery and that no doubt added to their popularity, as evidenced tonight with an unprecedented sell out show at Wellington’s iconic venue, San Fran. The queue to get in snaked all the way down Cuba St. As punters, eager to get in stood patiently to pass the ticket checks.

Before beginning the show, producer Alexander Cheparukhin, still dressed in his road worn jeans and T-shirt, came out to give context to the show. He begun by reminding the audience that this group, ‘Pussy Riot’ was, and never have actually been a ‘punk band’ - although they certainly embrace the same political and work ethics. Pussy Riot, he emphasised was an “protest-art collective”, music was just a small component made ‘for the purpose of protest actions and videos’.

He also told a tale of the support the collective has received over the last few weeks. The NZ gigs, he said were booked as a stop over between Australia and brazil. But they had learned since booking their Australian gigs that a new Minister for the Arts in Brazil has come in to power and decided to cancel their gigs in that part of the world. Immediately the Social Net work of Aotearoa swung into action and a range of smaller, impromptu gigs were arranged to take advantage of the calendar gap and to help create a new income stream for the gorup. Their bookings grew from just two commitments to events in Auckland, Nelson, Christchurch and even Invercargill.

Finally stepping away from the mic Cheparukhin promised a night of action - : “This will still be a ‘punk’ show,” he claimed, mischievously contradicting himself, “You will get hot and your clothes might get damaged. If you don’t want to get them damaged, get undressed now!”

Ironically, tonight’s well behaved, passive crowd were mostly content to stand and watch, even obeying an artificially created photography pit created by an invisible line and one very courteous bouncer. This was mainly for the collective’s videographer who, dutifully was documenting everything for posterity.

Musically, there was minimal instrumentation, a mix of live music performance played over a backing track with just a small drum kit, keyboard, trumpet and a saxophone which was played by Nastya Awott (Asian Women on the Telephone) and her male colleague. The [abridged] story of Riot Days was delivered by all five performers as a series of quotes and monologues backed up by a big screen in front of them providing video footage of events and screen shots which rolled concurrently. I’m glad it did because without English subtitles none of their dialogue would have been understandable, as it was performed entirely in their own street version of Russian.

Maria Alyokhina along with Russian actor and singer Kiryl Masheka, who spent most of it stripped to the waste, did most of the heavy lifting, chanting ‘official’ propaganda and shouting headlines, political statements and judge’s rulings, but also puntuating with individual quotes and observations from Alyokhina’s book (also called Riot Days) The other three chimed in on key statements to punctuated particular points.

Early into the show they played footage of the original protest at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior in 2012, using quotes from all sides to show how the anxiety and fear overtook the situation. As illustrated above the consequence of this protest action led to Alyokhina being hunted down like a spy (‘burn your SIM card, don’t go on the internet at home, move locations every day’); her ‘abusive’ arrest; the farcical trial and conviction and her two year incarceration at a penal colony in Nizhny Novgorod (which she refers to as a ‘Gulag’).

To be charged with ‘hooliganism’, the same penalty as soccer fans abroad, but treated in the eyes of the law and in prison, as a traitor and a threat to ‘society’ was clearly grossly gratuitous. It, rightly, caused an uproar across the world, and the audience tonight sympathised with their plight, shouting support when appropriate. The most harrowing moment came when Alyokhina curled up in a fetal ball at the front of the stage telling us of what it’s like to spend days on end in a cold, damp concrete cell with only her ‘imagined’ poetry to mindread. To emphasise the bitterness of winter, Masheka grabs a number of water bottles and splashes the crowd with their contents. San Fran’s wooden floor is covered in a 2 inch puddle, with the excess seeping between the boards to the shop below.

Most of the dialogue is delivered in at military style, stone faced attention, frequently interrupted by chaotic, apelike dancing and physical chaos. It’s an effective way to show the contrast between the cold conformity expected by the State and the desperate need to show individualism. Only twice do the group don the balaclavas, but the effect of their show is so powerful that this seems like more of a gimmick. So it was wise to limit the use.



Alyokhina doesn’t show a lot of emotion through out – staunch is an understatement. She is battle hardened when she performs, almost as if her own story has become someone else’s yet it is no doubt empowering and it gives her the strength to not only carry out her protest actions but continue on to this present day regardless of continued barriers and opposition from every quarter (she recently ignored a travel ban and went to Edinburgh to perform and she only managed to get her NZ visa one day before leaving Russia).

With chaotic dancing, clichéd cigarette smoking (mimicking Marlene Dietrich and Gestapo troops) and cold water splashes the imagery for the story is compelling and brash leaving a clear impression on many, and one that will be talking point for many audience members in the days following. Sue there are critics but what do they know? Alyokhina stood up for what she believed in and took her punishment. She’s bounced back, with a vengence.

The only thing missing in this show was the personal toll on her and her emotional state, which is somewhat buried by the bigger picture. She continues to protest and fights for the freedom of political prisoners like Ilya Shakursky and Vasily Kuksov (aledged members of the ‘Network’) who’ve been tortured during their time inside. Proceeds from the sale of merch such as t-shirts and books at the show go towards legal fees to fight for the freedom of those who’ve been persecuted by the State.

At the end of the gig Alyokhina stood proudly holding a rangatiratanga flag to show her solidarity with the descendants of whenua at Ihumātao, who marched down Lampton Quay to day as hīkoi to the Beehive to present an 18,000 signature petition calling on the government to revoke the 480-property development going ahead near Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve in South Auckland. Alyokhina implored the audience to stand strong with Ihumātao to stand up for land rights, and to show other countries, especially Australia, how we ‘white people’ can show support for indigeneous people. Right on!




Review by Tim Gruar (aka CoffeeBar Kid)









No comments: