Inside Pussy Riot, Saatchi Gallery, London, review: I wasn’t quite clear what it was hoping to evoke or why

Audience members join a fictional totalitarian dystopia in The Les Enfants Terrible's production based on the ordeal of Pussy Riot member Nadya Tolokonnikova, sent to jail for playing anti-Putin punk rock inside a Moscow cathedral

Les Enfant Terrible's production of 'Inside Pussy Riot' at the Saatchi Gallery
Les Enfant Terrible's production of 'Inside Pussy Riot' at the Saatchi Gallery

The Saatchi Gallery declares this show is “not for the faint hearted, come prepared to demonstrate and stand up for what you believe in!” Actually, your heart’s unlikely be to be unduly troubled by a show which fails to get the blood pumping.

Made by Les Enfants Terribles, who had a hit with an immersive take on Alice in Wonderland, the show offers a colourfully warped retelling of the experiences of Pussy Riot member Nadya Tolokonnikova: she was sentenced to two years in a penal colony in 2012 for playing 40 seconds of anti-Putin punk rock inside a Moscow cathedral. Audiences here become protesters, then prisoners, in a fictional totalitarian dystopia.

Before the show begins, we fill in a form, choosing a statement we’d be willing to stand up for: gender equality, protecting the planet, wealth redistribution and so on. We’re given placards emblazoned with these sentiments, then ushered into a garish cathedral featuring stained-glass Trumps and Murdochs and Mays; here, those placards soon get us convicted as “hooligans” by an absurdly comical establishment figure.

Police are also more figures of fun than menace – and we’re lamely told we have to go along with it all or the show won’t work. There follows a sham trial, with another comic grotesque as a judge; the notion of a puppet court is neatly conveyed by her arms being springily suspended, the set evoking a circus sideshow. Then, bang, we’re in the penal colony, and assigned a series of impossible work tasks: threading needles, that all turn out to be pins, for instance.

And yet here, in amongst the absurdity, real accounts of what real prisoners suffer are shared with a straight-face. They’re harrowing. But, tonally, it leaves the show a bit all over the place.

This fictional world is jarringly, prettily pastel – mint and mauve walls, prison guards in leather but also baby pink. It’s surely deliberately non-ominous and feminine (the cast is all female too), but I wasn’t quite clear what it was hoping to evoke or why. Sending up power is, of course, a potent way of puncturing it – but the rapid leaps from snarring at oppressors to telling how women genuinely suffered is step-change that doesn’t come off. It actually feels a little disrespectful.

Moreover, a final call to arms – where we are invited to shout slogans into a camera – feels flatly dutiful, more an act of polite obedience than rebellion. Inside Pussy Riot suffers from a common ailment of immersive theatre: audiences want the play to go well, and know there’s no real peril, so they play along. But you can’t then pretend that that means they’re all genuinely guiltily complicit – or, indeed, politically galvanised – by the fictional situation that they’re been spoon-fed. It is possible to pose real questions of engagement and action, consent and refusal, but Inside Pussy Riot does not do so.

Over headphones, we hear the undoubtedly brave Tolokonnikova encouraging us to stand up for what we believe in, insisting on the power of individual to help change the world through collective action. It’s a message we can absolutely always stand to hear again, but this show seems more likely to inspire a bit of awkward nodding than a riot of direct action.

'Inside Pussy Riot' is at the Saatichi Gallery until 24 December (insidepussyriot.com)

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