Live Review – Pussy Riot: Riot Days (3 stars)

Live Review: Pussy Riot: Riot Days

Maria Alyokhina tours the UK with a performed reading of her memoir

Leaving the art to one side, it's an unusual experience to be in the same room as Pussy Riot. To be in the same room, specifically, as Maria Alyokhina, a woman who has already far surpassed the bracket of 'cultural figure' – one she never quite managed to settle into in the West – to rocket to the position of 'bona fide icon'. In some respects, it's the 21st century equivalent of watching figures of the stature of Bono and U2 play a low-key show on the Art School stage; except Bono has never ended up in a Russian penal colony for performing his music (we'll leave aside the obvious joke about whether he ever should have or not).

For Alyokhina, this live UK tour is essentially a performed reading of her memoir Riot Days, which was released earlier this year and which relates the story of the performance – performed guerrilla-style in 2013 on the altar of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour – that saw her and two other members of Pussy Riot arrested, tried and sentenced, making them an international cause celebre, due in no small part to the David and Goliath nature of three young women going up against the Russian church and state.

In the event, this performance is more theatre than music, and most compelling because of the single-minded focus and courage which Alyokhina still clearly bears to this day. There are four performers onstage, two women and two men. One of the men plays a bunch of synthesised and slightly underpowered backing beats which skirt the fringes of industrial, ambient and even dub, like an illegal rave in the south of England in 1992, and the woman who isn't Alyokhina often bursts into vivid, otherworldly blasts of saxophone accompaniment.

All four break into the kind of wild but somehow choreographed tantrum-dancing that will be familiar to anyone who has seen the video which made them famous, and it's fair to say that this and the rather rudimentary sound bed give them the impression of a very committed university group delivering a piece of performance art. Yet Alyokhina's words – delivered in Russian and translated in very small supertitles on a backing screen showing found and period footage, as well as cartoon representations of the courtroom – are inevitably compelling.

Her way with a soundbite or a yelled slogan ('protest should be desperate, sudden and joyous!' she snaps at one point) is well-practised, and doubtless inspired by the sloganeers of Mai '68 and beyond. Yet her tales of surviving prison a week's drive from Moscow in 'the republic of convicts' are as darkly amusing as they are chilling, and her final note of defiance as she was issued with the apparently generous Presidential pardon that she didn't want struck a chord with an audience apparently filled with students and activists of all ages. To most Western observers, the fight Alyokhina has taken on in her home country is one which is only understood in second-hand terms; yet her yelled 'No Pasaran!' at the end of the show is language her audience appear to very noisily understand.

Seen at the Art School, Glasgow, Tue 21 Nov.

Pussy Riot: Riot Days

Russian protest punk-rock collective.

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