“This is no time for complacency,” says Tess Berry-Hart, “or appeasement, or political apathy.” We’re in a North London cafe with the writer’s husband and frequent collaborator David Mercatali, talking about their upcoming verbatim play Sochi 2014. The pair have previously worked court transcripts and first-hand interviews into a piece about a miscarriage of justice in a murder case, Someone to Blame, staged at the King”s Head Theatre in Islington – not far from the home of wrongly imprisoned teenager Sam Hallam. This time they’re setting their sights further afield, taking on a global superpower by offering a loudhailer to the voices Putin is desperate to silence: LGBT Russians.
“When I talked to the King’s Head, we all said this is dreadful, but what can we do about it? Well, the stories are there, let’s go and talk to people.” Berry-Hart’s script, which Mercatali will direct, comprises extracts from interviews she carried out with gay and lesbian people in Russia affected by the infamous ‘propaganda’ laws, from “Moscow gay clubs and nudist beaches to the deepest countryside”, intercut with headlines and political soundbites. What began as a short rapid-response piece at the theatre in September is “snowballing” into a full length play, with performances and readings scheduled around the world – telling the human story beneath the government spin in the run-up to what the writer calls Russia’s “Oscars of nationalism,” the Sochi winter olympics.
Eight months pregnant, Berry-Hart wasn’t able to travel when the project began so set about searching for contacts online. Unsurprisingly, “the most difficult thing was finding people willing to talk. David studied in Russia, my sister worked there for a few years, and we thought that with how well we know Russian people, we’ll just ask around. No chance.” Whilst Russia has been historically hostile to what the current regime calls “non-traditional sexual relations”, in the wake of the summer’s new laws, Berry-Hart found that people “didn’t trust what would happen to their information. They were worried about their families.” And not without cause; aside from “opening the floodgates” to even harsher legislation, Mercatali points out that “what the new laws do is legitimise that hostility. They activate people – the government is using homophobic people as unofficial, unpaid thugs”.
But the new laws have also activated a new wave of resistance. “The best way was to talk to activist groups in Russia and get them to approach people who wanted to stand up and be counted. Once we’d made those contacts, the stories started to trickle in.” While most stories have been been anonymised and stripped of identifying details, some people have asked to be named – for those who’ve emigrated, having an account on the record has strengthened their asylum case overseas. “If your case is high profile, like when we did Someone to Blame,” Berry-Hart explains, “Unfortunately people take it more seriously – it shouldn’t be like that, but it is.”
That several people depicted are in the public eye presents an interesting question for a director, I suggest to Mercatali: when staging verbatim, how do you tread the line between mimicry and depth? “You have to take the script on its own merits. It’s like approaching any other piece,” he says. “Some of the most extraordinary characters that emerge out of this are members of the Russian government. They are unbelievable in some ways…”
“They’re Bond villains,” Berry-Hart pitches in. “Completely ridiculous – and you think, I’m not making this up, I have quoted you. Directly.” As a director though, Mercatali has to ensure his actors “don”t judge the characters. When they’re inhabiting the character, they have to be true and fair. As long as they approach it that way, it’s not important that they create an exact imitation.” As with Someone to Blame, Mercatali has a cast of five actors playing a diverse range of roles. “The requirements of the actors is really tough; not just huge amounts of versatility, but a dramatic energy that embraces going quickly from one character to another and not being afraid of that.”
It’s through this energy, “panoramic” dynamism and almost “epic” (in the Brechtian sense) approach to multiple viewpoints that the creative duo battle negative perceptions about verbatim as a form; as Mercatali points out, there is an enduring idea that it’s somehow dry and intrinsically “un-dramatic”. “You have to avoid it becoming too technical in your approach,” he considers, “and therefore almost too cerebral. It can go that way, and you can’t get away from it. There are always going to be intellectual arguments around what you’re going to approach, but it’s the human stories that people engage with.”
“That’s one of the reasons that we’re workshopping it,” says Berry-Hart, who’s been actively involved in the development and rehearsal process, “to make it as theatrical as possible. A lot of the best interviews focus on what happens in Russia, how LGBT people are intimidated by local police and gangs, and we create quite a lot of that – it’s not just somebody standing up and speaking. We love verbatim, but it can have this reputation…”
Indeed. Offhand, most of the verbatim plays I remember have dealt with pretty heavy themes – human trafficking, geriatric care-workers, or DV8’s own anti-homophobia piece, To be Straight with You. But there’s no reason verbatim should be “only grim,” argues Mercatali, even if the subject matter is. “In the darkest places, people find humour. We see it in theatre all the time, but what”s brilliant in verbatim is it’s being created directly from the mouths of people involved.”
A more practical challenge has been shaping and staging the play around global events that are constantly shifting, without being instantly outdated. Berry-Hart has built this potential problem into the fabric of the script. “What we’d really like to have is a living testament of what’s happening.” The piece is “roughly chronological”, beginning in the summer of 2013 and leading to the present – whenever that may be. “After these productions there’s talk of taking this play in a different form to music and theatre festivals. So it’s always going to have to be as up to the minute as possible.”
In fact, the post-Olympic life and legacy of Sochi 2014 could be even more crucial than the immediacy of its upcoming run coinciding with the games. “Writing this play keeps the issues in the public consciousness”, says Berry-Hart, “hopefully for long after the Olympics are actually over.” When I ask what impact they hope to have, Mercatali reflects, “I wouldn’t pretend that it’s anything more than awareness, but awareness often leads to more.” Berry-Hart adds, “It’s all part of the pressure,” and hopes the play will spur audiences on to engage in effective solidarity, whether by “joining protest actions, petitioning the olympic sponsors, or donating.” All profits from the show itself will go to Spectrum HR, “an Eastern European gay advocacy organisation that helps get people out of the country if they’re at risk, and helps victims of police brutality”.
Like The Laramie Project, which draws on interviews about the death of Matthew Shepherd in 1998 and is often performed on the anniversary of his death, the pair hope the play will continue to be a useful weapon for combatting homophobia, as well as keeping the spotlight on Russia once the snow thaws, the athletes leave and the cameras switch off. “Because that’s the fear of most of the people I talk to – we’ve got the eyes of the world on us now; we won’t in a few months. When it’s over, what’s going to happen to us?”
Sochi 2014 is at the Hope Theatre from 4 February to 1 March. Fore more information and tickets, visit the Hope Theatre’s website.