Originally written for The Public Reviews
There’s something almost stingingly ironic about being told at the beginning of a performance about human rights abuses that all of the cast and crew have been paid Equity minimum rates. It’s an undoubtedly excellent achievement for a small venue and a strong statement to make in the current climate, but the juxtaposition it throws up when we are about to see teenagers beaten, families separated and people fleeing for their lives in Tess Berry-Hart’s verbatim piece on the fallout of Putin’s law against ‘gay propaganda’ is searing.
Most works of theatre are, in some way, labours of love, but every now and again one comes across a piece that is clearly a passion project; into which no less than 234 script footnotes have been poured. Sochi 2014 is the amalgamation of months of Berry-Hart’s research, interviews and meticulous gathering of media coverage since Russia’s Duma passed a law banning the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” in June 2013.
Mere hours after watching some of the vociferously heterosexual opening ceremony at Sochi, with its touchingly beautiful tribute to Russia’s history of extremely talented and undoubtedly straight ballet dancers, composers and engineers, Sochi 2014 comes crashing through the media distractions of badly constructed hotel rooms and technical fumbles to remind us of what it really means to be gay and to live in Russia. Right now. It is easier to think of a somewhat amusingly backwards country, one in which nothing quite functions, in which corruption slows everything down and social sensibilities are several decades shy of the West than of a nation whose politicians have made a considered decision to persecute their own citizens.
Slaloming through Russia’s yo-yoing history of criminalising and de-criminalising same sex relationships, Sochi 2014 deftly avoids the pitfall of feeling too much like self-entitled Western rage by speaking directly through the voices of Russian people themselves. Through journalists, activists and young people, we hear from those who have fled Russia, those who stay and live in fear and those who are fighting for change. A cast of five, decked out in the colours of the Olympic rings, shuttle back and forth between roles as Putin, politicians, tormentors and the persecuted. Though there are moments of wry humour, there is a sickliness to them as they often stem verbatim from Putin or another politician in a position of power; dogged by an awareness of how easy it is to laugh from the comfort of a country where one is unlikely to be beaten on the street with impunity as a result of being rendered invisible by such a comment.
Where it strays somewhat provocatively is in following Stephen Fry’s lead in comparing current sanctions and the opinions of prominent Russian individuals to the pre-Nuremberg era in Germany. However, it is difficult to construct a robust argument against this; the gay community are being ostracised, vilified, described as unclean, sub-human, unsuitable to be around children, un-Russian and unworthy of the right to vote. As journalist Masha Gessen points out, everything about this campaign is tied to painting the gay community as the antithesis to the ideal Russian citizen. It sounds crushingly familiar. It is subsequently gut-wrenching to be reminded of the fact that, even when someone such as Ira Pulitova has struggled to escape the Russian police and arrived in the UK, they can be detained and asked to prove that their plea for asylum has a precedent.
The elasticity of the verbatim format allows it to respond instantly, and Berry-Hart is clear about its intent to do so throughout its run. Tonight we learn that protesters were arrested in Red Square hours before the performance, for holding rainbow flags. It is difficult not to feel radicalised by Sochi 2014.