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What Do You Believe In? Oliver Lansley On The Immersive Punk Production 'Inside Pussy Riot'

Oliver Lansley is the Artistic Director of the Olivier-nominated Les Enfants Terribles Theatre Company, who have collaborated with Nadya Tolokonnikova – the founder of post punk, feminist art collective Pussy Riot – on an immersive theatrical production, Inside Pussy Riot. Coinciding with the Saatchi Gallery's Art Riot: Post Soviet Actionism exhibition, this exhilarating show marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Oliver is a writer, director, producer and actor.

When we were first approached to collaborate with Nadya on Inside Pussy Riot, I must admit I had my reservations…

Firstly, we at Les Enfants Terribles don’t really make ‘political’ theatre: I’m not even sure if I like ‘political’ theatre. To clarify; all theatre/art is political if you bestow it with your own personal belief system. However, I’ve never felt comfortable with telling people what they should and shouldn’t believe. Asking questions: Absolutely. Giving answers: Not entirely sure that’s not my place.

Secondly, I was suddenly acutely aware that, as an English white dude, writing a show about a Russian, all female, feminist, punk protest group, to be performed in an art gallery in the most affluent area of London – carries with it certain ironies.

Of course, being a man doesn’t preclude me from being a proud feminist, neither do I believe the only stories artists are allowed to tell are their own but… Not entirely sure that’s my place. However, when you are being offered the chance to collaborate with Nadya Tolokonnikova, to explore the story of arguably the greatest provocateurs of the 21st century so far, you don’t really say no! But to be able to move forwards with any confidence I had to understand why we were doing it, and what it was that I personally had to say about it.

I personally hate the question that is often floated by funding bodies or smug, passive aggressive intellectuals when embarking on the creation of a piece of art (or as I’d prefer to call it, ‘do a play’). ‘Why this? Why Now?’

But for this piece, frustratingly it seemed particularly valid. I felt something that I hadn’t really felt before in our work. I felt responsibility. Obviously, I always feel a deep responsibility to our audience, but I have realised that the best way to satisfy them, more often than not, is to give everything you have and make what you believe in to the best of your ability. But this was a different kind of responsibility.

The world is a strange place at the moment, which is probably one of the reasons Nadya decided to approach us in the first place. Trump; Putin; Kim Jong-un; The Bullingdon Brigade. The last few years have thrown up some challenging but also down right bizarre twists in our collective Western narratives. Times they are a changing… Personally I believe the rise of these grotesque, pantomime, alpha male figures are, as opposed to a gigantic leap backwards in our progressiveness, actually (to paraphrase Thom Yorke) ‘the last dying fart’ of a crippled patriarchy.

Things always get darkest before the dawn, and yet, that knowledge doesn’t make it any easier to find the bathroom door when the lights are off.


All this is a rather verbose way of me saying that I think the reason this story is important to revisit right now is that it encapsulates so many things we currently need to protect and celebrate in equal measures. The chief of these qualities is Freedom of speech – so easily taken for granted by us liberals. This includes our Freedom to protest, freedom to question authority, freedom to pull on a balaclava and sing a verse of the Punk prayer on the altar of a Russian orthodox church… Well you get the idea.

We have just witnessed the unfathomable rise of Trump, which spookily mirrors the rise of Putin in its techniques of managing and manipulating the masses (‘Hyper-normalisation’ as popularised by the hyper-intelligent Adam Curtis).

When the leader of the free world talks about grabbing pussies it really feels like the right time for those same Pussies to be rioting. The story of Pussy Riot to me is not necessarily about what Pussy Riot were saying in that church. It’s about the fact they said it, and that they were prepared to stand by what they said and face the consequences.

They were a tiny loose screw that fell into the machine of power and yet, they came close to breaking the whole damn thing. At the very least they showed a lot of people how badly it was broken in the first place.

So those questions:

Why this?

It is a story that encourages people to question the systems of power on which our lives are run.

Why now?

In recent years, having been blindsided by elections and polls and unpleasant attitudes, I have felt an increasing sense of powerlessness amongst people: the idea that despite our best efforts we cannot halt the rise of the ugliness rearing its head. Powerlessness leads to apathy and apathy leads to effectively handing power to those who crave and covet it the most (and those are always the people you would rather not have it). 

The story of Pussy Riot is one of defiance, of refusing to capitulate to the status quo. It is about the importance of a single voice (or several singles voices) and equally of collective voices, united in a cause. The hashtag #freePussyRiot was trending within hours of their arrest and the outpouring of support from Slebs like Paul McCartney, Madonna & Bono and then regular Plebs like you and I, undoubtedly played an important role in their release. Voices can change things.

Purely in writing this piece I feel myself cringing at using my own voice – In putting myself out there, stating my beliefs, commenting and criticising. Not to mention, publicly aligning myself with the ‘trouble-makers’ - there goes my Russian summer holiday. But if I’m not prepared to do that, how can I make a piece which asks its audience to do the same?

The aim for Inside Pussy Riot is to ask our audience: What do you believe in? And do you believe in it enough to stand behind that opinion? Whether that means standing up to your friends, your parents, your colleagues, the trolls, or the Russian Orthodox Church.

I’m sure that most of you who read this, as it’s emailed directly to your iPhone X by some hipster in a hat working from a shipping container in East London, will be drowning in privilege. As I sit, typing this on my MacBook on a houseboat in Hackney, awaiting some very small, very expensive and very delicately prepared coffee, I know that I am. Freedom of speech is one of the greatest of those privileges – so let us cherish it, and let us use it.

We are all Pussy Riot.

Inside Pussy Riot
Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York’s HQ, King’s Road, London SW3 4RY
Tuesday 14th November – Sunday 24th December 2017