Pussy Riot: Riot Days @ Summerhall, Edinburgh, 10 Aug

The Skinny / Katie Hawthorne


“A revolution needs a big screen.”

Maria “Masha” Aloykhina has broken the law to be here tonight. A court ruling forbade her to leave Russia, so she drove hundreds of miles to reach an airport that couldn’t stop her from boarding a plane to Edinburgh. She’s standing centre stage in Summerhall’s Dissection Room and is about to offer a metaphor for the unjust, freezing conditions in a Russian penal colony. She grabs a crate of water bottles and steadily, methodically, empties each one over her head. Her blonde curls flatten. Her hood is slicked to her skull. Water drips from the stage. The entire room takes a deep breath – then the tension implodes. Her three bandmates spray the front rows of the full-capacity crowd, soaking anyone they can reach. Some audience members embrace the chaos, facing the storm head on. Others flinch and duck. Further back, cameras are held high.

Trademark balaclavas make Pussy Riot the world’s most (un)recognisable activist collective. Their protests are high profile and their actions are varied. As producer Alexander “Sasha” Cheparukhin makes clear in a pre-show pep talk, Pussy Riot are many things; human rights activists, a media organisation, authors, musicians. Tonight we have Riot Days, a show – part theatre, part gig – that reinterprets Masha’s book of the same title. Proceeds from the tickets (and merch, lots of merch) are fed back into the collective, paying for lawyers and an independent media. In 2014 Pussy Riot were split over an appearance with Madonna, some members complaining that performing within capitalism was against the group’s ethos. No longer. This revolution needs a big screen, and big screens are expensive.

Masha, flanked by Nastya ‘The Bass Player’ and Max – musicians from the group Asian Women on the Telephone – and actor Kyril Masheka, presents extracts from her book in rapid Russian spoken word. Above the stage, screens splay subtitles and intimate, home-made video footage. A rallying drum beat and Nastya’s sax, soulful and savage in equal measure, propel the show as it follows Masha from early Pussy Riot protests to prison in the Ural Mountains. A breathless pace builds to an unbearable pitch until the collective demand action: “Get ready to JUMP.”

Later, the lights dim as Masha crouches low at the edge of the stage, eye to eye with the front rows of the crowd. She pulls up her hood as she remembers preparing for prison: “I promise myself I won’t forget anything.”

Riot Days is a ragged, intimidating show set in the present tense – these actions aren’t history, this battle’s not over. At the start, Sasha advises that the audience act “as punk as possible” but how can this chipper, half-cut Friday night Fringe audience pass themselves off as serious activists? The best solution? Be a witness.