Sochi 2014 is theatre-as-activism done to a very high standard. Tess Berry-Hart’s verbatim play takes interviews she conducted with Russian LGBT people and edits the results into a compelling 70 minutes. As the Sochi Winter Olympics kick off, Russia’s punitive anti-gay laws are increasingly in the spotlight as campaigners try to find ways to pressurise Putin and his government to recognise and face up to the homophobia that plagues Russia.
The testimony collected here, intercut with quotes from the media, and internet footage of beatings and abuse, is powerful stuff. Very little framing is needed for the words to stand on their own, although the end result is a little scrappy – the piece is updated as events change, so this is to be expected. It’s easy to struggle with verbatim theatre looking for a narrative thread to follow, but this show is made up of lots of little bits and Berry-Hart has built up a skilful collage.
The staging also feels a bit scrappy, with some devices over-used. However, given the vast range of characters played by the cast of five, this slightly haphazard feel is understandable. The cast fill the Hope Theatre’s tiny playing space with energy, whether playing the persecuted or persecutors. It’s hard-hitting and emotional to watch, knowing as we do that the words – and the violence and hatred described and portrayed – are real.
I do question, though, whether some of the editorialising towards the end lays it on a bit thick. Nothing is needed to drive this show’s message home except its words. As the play nears its conclusion, a number of parallels are drawn between the situation for LGBT people in Russia at the moment and the Jews in Germany in the 1930s and ’40s. There is no doubt that the propaganda portraying gay, transgender or bisexual people as “other” and “anti-Russian” draws on previous efforts to ostracise and abuse a minority group, and the subtle (and not-so-subtle) inferences that “the gays” are to blame for Russia’s failing economy also scream of scapegoating.
The comparisons with Hitler and the Nazis were made very explicit, though, and I wonder if this angle was pursued too relentlessly. I felt that although these parallels were there to see, by framing it in the way they did (including soundbites from extremely right-wing politicians) it perhaps masked a more subtle and insidious parallel with Hitler’s rise to power and the internal hatred directed at a minority group. I wonder if the direct comparison to Hitler and the Nazis risks reducing the impact by tipping over into hyperbole at times.
That said, much of the piece maintains a dignified restraint, prepared to let the words of others do the talking. And we should be listening.
Sochi 2014 is at the Hope Theatre until 28 Feb. For more information and tickets, visit the Hope Theatre’s website.