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Review: Inside Pussy Riot (Saatchi Gallery)

Les Enfants Terribles, Pussy Riot founder Nadya Tolokonnikova and the Saatchi Gallery present this new, immersive theatre experience

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Fighters for freedom take many forms and in 2012 in Russia they took the shape of an all-female punk rock group called Pussy Riot who staged a performance inside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The arrest and subsequent imprisonment of two of the band, Maria Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova, for hooliganism, sparked an international campaign of protest; they were finally released under a more general amnesty.

This case, which starkly revealed the oppressive face of Putin's regime, forms the background to this immersive piece of theatre-cum-art installation by Les Enfants Terribles which forces its audience – small groups of up to 16 at a time – to put themselves in the place of the women, and to stand up for their right to speak and protest.

That makes it sound slightly more frightening than it actually is, though it has its moments. It begins in an artfully constructed latterday cathedral (design by Zoe Koperski) where the icons of Trump, Farage and Putin take their place in the stained glass, and where we are incited to don our balaclavas of anonymity (mine didn't quite fit which made me blind) and protest. Then we are arrested, interrogated and find ourselves caged in a court in front of a screeching puppet judge who sentences us to "21 minutes in a penal colony."

This contrasts with the two-year sentence the Pussy Riot protesters received. Inside it is shadowy and grim. We are told to put on prison uniform, given a number that becomes our identity, put to pointless tasks – counting needles, cleaning coins – and ultimately sent to solitary, in a dark, constricting wooden cell.

En route we are badgered by a succession of female guards, subjected to the propaganda of this imaginary state, told to keep in line. Overhead, muttered, you can hear the voices of revolt, the story of the hunger strike the real Pussy Riot protestors embarked upon, the brutality of the conditions.

The problem with all this, of course, is that we are your average embarrassed English theatre audience, not absolutely sure how to behave or what to do. Full scale revolt seems pointless – though our group did contain one refusenik, he wasn't really punished for disobedience. The actors cope quite well with this; at one point, in a supposed prison yard, the script makes the point that we are all following the instruction of actors in an art gallery. But there would be no show if we did not.

Inside Pussy Riot is co-written by Oliver Lansley, artistic director of Les Enfants Terribles, and Nadya Tolokonnikova and it is when it comes closest to her experience that it is at its best. There is one chilling, soul-searching moment early in the process, that makes you realise the impossibility of a situation where speech, even in your own defence, is forbidden. It creates a feeling of utter powerlessness.

At the close, when you sit in a claustrophobic cell, and listen to Tolokonnikova describing how after four weeks in prison she was "destroyed and obedient", the darkness of any regime that takes away freedom of speech strikes fiercely home. The simple directness of the moment makes it dramatic; the rest of the time, the show feels slightly too polite and artful to truly take us inside the suffering.

Inside Pussy Riot runs at the Saatchi Gallery until 24 December.

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