Vladimir Putin’s intelligence agencies may be trying to influence the American presidential elections, but it must be said that the information war against him has a little more class – if sometimes less subtlety. The artist Petr Pavlensky famously nailed his scrotum to the pavement of Red Square in 2013 to make a point about the weakness of opposition to his regime, and later set fire to the doors of his security service headquarters (the burning doors of this show’s title). Pussy Riot were arrested and two of their number sent to jail after a sacrilegious unsanctioned punk performance in a Moscow cathedral.
Along with jailed Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, the stories of these artists are put on stage by Belarus Free Theatre, themselves exiles from the dictatorship in their home country and themselves something of legends in their own right. With Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina herself on stage, there are high hopes for what this meeting of so many Slavic enfants terribles in one show might produce. Are they met?
The answer will probably depend on who’s watching. This is in many ways an extraordinary show, every bit as noisy, taboo-busting and brutal to behold as you could want. Nudity, defecation, urine, violence and a hefty drum track are thrown with iconoclastic abandon into the mix. BFT reaffirm their unmatched abilities as physical performers, part circus troupe, part horror show, these are actors who will drown, strangle and beat themselves seemingly to within an inch of their lives to get across a message.
In intellectual ambition, too, the show is hardly lacking. Pavlensky’s Kafkaesque dialogue with his police interrogator (a genuine conversation secretly recorded by the impishly incorrigible artist) on the nature of art and terrorism is performed over a writhing mass of bodies, while extracts from Dostoevsky’s novels serve to usefully draw out threads of the Russian consciousness that appear to remain constant: existential terror and a fascination with and repulsion by authority. Michel Foucault’s theories of sexuality, punishment and the nature of imprisonment also get an explicit hearing, with the thought that punishment is aimed at the soul not the body becoming realised in several eye-watering vignettes from the imprisonment of Mr Senstsov.
The problem of course, comes in trying to pack everything into a single show. The insane media circus that surrounded Pussy Riot is satirised a couple of times while life as a female political prisoner is put under the spotlight, yet these themes require greater examination and perhaps their own shows to be done justice to. The story of Pavlensky may not be well-known to audiences, and they need more space to drink in the otherworldly strangeness of this character, a man who crashes like an immovable object into the unstoppable force of the Russian state, producing stalemate because they can’t work out what to do with the only thing as mad as their continued rule.
The linking factor throughout is a total and unremitting assault on the human body, and while this is doubtless an extremely effective means of portraying oppression, I’m not quite sure it hangs together with a full-throated discussions of the nature of the prisoner in art. A scatological scene in which state officials are portrayed on toilets discussing the difficulties in dealing with Pavlensky verges too close to standard agit-prop while at the same time being very funny – again the problem is in hurling too many elements into one piece, like a Master and Margarita gone slightly off-kilter. If the physicality of the piece manages to render abstract things concrete, the ideas in it are perhaps too many to be sure of what quite those abstract things were.
This, though, is splitting hairs. Most people will come away from the way cheered by such a bracing call to arms by people who can claim to have faced oppression the likes of which dissidents in this country fantasising about the machinations of Blairites at Portland Communications can only dream of. It shows that however much the body is beaten, the soul can recover, and if the final message is about reclaiming our courage, then the only thing that could be braver about the piece is in making it a little simpler. But then what about Russia has ever been simple?
Burning Doors is playing Soho Theatre until 24 September. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.
Photo: Alex Brenner