Life’s A Riot With Pussy Riot

RENEE JONES catches the Auckland Fringe performance of Pussy Riot’s show, Riot Days, and comes away richer for the experience.

Live pic by Phil Armstrong.

It’s fair to say that most people gathered at the Auckland Town Hall to see Pussy Riot on Friday night knew what to expect, so there was a buzzy air of anticipation in the Auckland Town Hall in the lead up to their set.

Already known in underground musical circles for their confrontational performances and anti-Putin stance, Pussy Riot gained global notoriety in 2012 when three members, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich were imprisoned for “premeditated hooliganism performed by an organised group of people motivated by religious hatred or hostility” for their performance of ‘Punk Prayer’ inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

Samutsevich wasn’t charged in the end as security prevented her from accessing the church interior, so she was released on two years’ probation. But the judges rejected the appeals of Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina and upheld their convictions. The two were despatched to penal colonies in Mordovia and Perm Oblast, respectively. They were both released in December 2013, a couple of months shy of the two years they’d been sentenced to.

As it turns out, these details are good to know prior to the show. Part of Auckland Live’s Fringe Town, Pussy Riot had arrived to perform not a gig, as many may had expected, but rather an anarchic rock-opera based on Alyokhina’s book Riot Days, a memoir of her imprisonment.

Wellington anarcho-punk band Unsanitary Napkin were a good choice as openers before the main attraction. The trio are made up of singer/guitarist Hannah Salmon (aka Daily Secretion), bassist Rupert Pirie-Hunter (also of Downer Buzz) and drummer Ben Knight (from The All-Seeing Hand and Rogernomix). They are raw, fast and loud, and if that’s your bag, they bring a refreshing dose of pure punk rock. Like Pussy Riot they are unapologetically political – their short sharp closing number ‘Patriarchal Boner’ evidences their lyrical content. Other songs include ‘Peter Thiel (Literal Fucking Vampire)’ and ‘Good Night White Pride.’ You get the idea.

After a short break, producer Alexander ‘Sasha’ Cheparukhin introduced Pussy Riot at some length (maybe too much), dispelling some myths and at the same time probably creating others. He emphasised that Pussy Riot is not a punk band, a feminist collective, or a political entity; Pussy Riot is all these things – and none of them.

No matter. Pussy Riot have classified themselves as many things over the years, so I took the grandiose build-up with a grain of salt. But the fact that Alyokhina’s visa was only approved the day before, and she still travels in stealth, was jarring.

One thing that Pussy Riot are is a voice of protest which refuses to be quietened, and this is the crux of Riot Days.

Five performers took to the stage, and a myth immediately dispelled is that Pussy Riot are an all-female ensemble. Tonight’s cast was three women and 2 men, all clad in black, some sporting their trademark balaclavas, with Maria ‘Masha’ Alyokhina in the centre.

Overshadowing the stage was an enormous screen – the star of the piece in many ways. The sheer scale of the Town Hall was perfect for showcasing the video collage which presented the story: the images, clips and text essentially serving as the narrator alongside Alyokhina herself. And she is tiny, which made her story resonate that much more.

A show in three acts, the group moved between instrumental breaks and acting out the narrative. The music took the form of strident free jazz – saxophone, trumpet, drums, synths and keyboards used to dramatic effect. Maybe it wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but I thought it set just the right tone. Between tracks, the ensemble shouted along with the text, in both Russian and English, emphasising crucial moments. “Anyone can be Pussy Riot!”

Yes, the subject matter was grim and the approach confrontational, but there was plenty of ironic humour in the mix – the protagonists knew when they were being watched because “agents wear shoes with pointy toes – that’s their idea of fashion!”

Live pic by Phil Armstrong.

The show is travelling the world, and there are some nay-sayers who think that Pussy Riot are milking it, but I really don’t think that’s the case. In a country like New Zealand with scary poverty rates, but where capital gains tax is the big talking point, we perhaps shouldn’t be as complacent as we are, and the Riot Days show brought that home.

What I took from the performance is that they are not just rehashing the Pussy Riot story over and over – they are encouraging others to challenge their own scenarios. As Alyokhina said to Dina Jezdic in an interview for The Spinoff, “It’s about solidarity…The book is about sharing a story – not only mine, but ours as Pussy Riot and ours as Russia. This is just one story. It’s not a big thing. Do your own story please. Do not follow their fucking rules.”

Music can be truly powerful. And if you’ve spent close to two years in prison for playing music that your regime doesn’t like, in my books you can say whatever you like.

* Pussy Riot and Unsanitary Napkin performed at Auckland Town Hall, Friday February 22, as part of the Auckland Fringe festival.

 

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