Pussy Riot: Riot Days

“When the cops got us, we told them we were drama students,” so reads the English translation of a line from Maria “Masha” Alyokhina’s memoir Riot Days, displayed behind her during Pussy Riot’s punk concert at Summerhall in Edinburgh.

The theatrical nature of the protest group is evidenced in the show, which mixes
Masha’s spoken-word performance with saxophone and a heavy electronic beat – from Nastya and Maxim of the band AWOTT respectively. Nastya was the person who initially introduced Masha to Pussy Riot, but after the concert she’s relegating to the merchandise stall – Masha is definitely the star attraction.

This is partly because even getting to this concert has been a challenge for Masha – who was initially denied permission to leave Russia, before smuggling herself out of the country through Belarus and driving to Lithuania where she was able to board a flight to the UK. This daring escape happened only a couple days before the concert, adding to an air of real revolution. Most punk gigs can only dream of such an atmosphere.

“Revolution is a story. If we fell out of it, disappeared, it be their story, not ours,” says Masha, steely-eyed as footage plays of the group’s members in masks. “They are used to people being scared of them. You can’t be scared.”

Telling the story of Masha’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment, the show includes a list of rules from Masha’s book, an attempt at a manual of sorts on how to behave when you’re evading arrest. Rules include: finding a lawyer, using cash, avoiding using the internet in your own home, and changing your appearance. This sort of direct advice forms a key part of both the book and the show.

The fateful protest in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in 2012, which led to the arrest of members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Masha herself is covered in detail; “Our performance was not theomachy, but criticism of the institution of the Church in contemporary Russia,” reads the text at one point.

Personal faith is also explored, with quotes such as “If you forgive others their sins, our Father in Heaven will forgive yours, and if you do not forgive others their sins, our Father will not forgive yours,” the line after the Lord’s Prayer in the Gospel of Matthew, included alongside advice such as, “You can always find a Bible.”

The role of Kiryl Masheka – who adds his vocal talent and aggressive vigour, swaggering across the stage bare-chested and making gun signs into the audience – is a little unclear. A member of the Belarus Free Theatre, which Masha has performed with in the past, his presence adds to a general underlying sense of unease and danger. You are never allowed to forget that you are watching a group whose members have served jail time for the type of behaviour you’re watching – criticising the Russian authorities through performance art and punk rock.

It’s only at the end of the show, when Masha says; “ Thank you so much, its our first show in Edinburgh and you are great. This performance is based on my book and I will be happy to sign it in the courtyard,” that you realise it’s been hours since you heard anything in English – the translated text over the documentary footage is that effective.

The book costs a solid twenty pounds, but having a copy signed by one of the most interesting political activists operating today is well worth paying a premium. Good luck to all of them.

Stars: *****

Pussy Riot: Riot Days
Summerhall, 1 Summerhall, EH9 1PL

Aug 16-19, 19:00, £17.50

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