The 2012 Pussy Riot case caused global controversy. Now a member of the activist group, Nadya Tolokonnikova, has teamed up with Les Enfants Terribles to create an interactive experience. Sami Armstrong and Daniel Perks discuss the Saatchi Gallery’s latest in political and theatrical design:

The story of survival and response against the repressive Russian state, Inside Pussy Riot has moved many. But be prepared to be fully exposed within immersive chaos. An experience and decision that challenges your senses, emotions and true reactions under pressure.

We become a part of the system, simply by following instruction. We are told to hold placards and protest, so we do. We are led into prisons after conviction without proof and we acquiesce. We even observe a member of our party being treated in ways that we know we should speak out against, but we don’t move a muscle.

We are the system


How has the event in Moscow’s Cathedral back in 2012, involving the performance of Russian feminist protest punk rock group Pussy Riot continued to actively make a difference? A creative collaboration involving The Saatchi Gallery, designer Zoe Koperski, immersive theatre group Les Enfants Terribles and Pussy Riot founder Nadya Tolokonnikova join forces to provoke, challenge and send shockwaves through society. Design and Theatre here at Miro experience the performance and reflect on how the collaboration balance generates such an experience, questioning the effects and overall control between the audience and the creative team:

Inside Pussy Riot Saatchi Gallery Les Enfants Terribles

Image courtesy of Kenny Mathieson

We know that Inside Pussy Riot is theatrical and therefore fictional. Does that dampen our connection with its sociopolitical message?

The quandary to Inside Pussy Riot is that it defies subjugation, yet in doing so it represses the emotive responses of its audience. We recognise the overall theatricality inherent in Les Enfants Terribles‘ work. Even though the show is classed as immersive, we know that it’s not real and so we don’t do anything. We silently reassure each other with furtive glances that nothing can go wrong because we’ve paid for the benefit of being safe, plunged into a faux reality that we are able to observe from an emotional distance and not partake in. We shroud ourselves in the fourth wall as our coat of armour or a protective blanket.

Is Inside Pussy Riot a leap too far in immersive experience?

If we know that we are part of a fictional resistance, we don’t feel the abject terror of that which forms the basis of the story. Because Inside Pussy Riot is indeed a warped version of reality. It is the horror that happened only five years ago in Russia, where the group Pussy Riot caused “hooliganism through inciting religious hatred” and were punished with two years in a prison that more closely resembled a concentration camp.

Freedom of speech, as long as you speak in line with the party.

But we aren’t emotionally attached enough to rail out. We line up as we’re told; we do our prison exercises as we’re instructed. The only moments that we even consider breaking the rules is when we believe a member of our party is being humiliated, or when we are told to rally against the system and throw off the shackles that we have willingly bound ourselves in.

Inside Pussy Riot Saatchi Gallery Les Enfants Terribles

Image courtesy of Kenny Mathieson

Does the experience truly have control over us the whole time? Are our reactions of outrage, small though they may be, simply within the parameters of theatrical control?

Les Enfants Terribles are masters of immersive theatre. From Alice’s Adventures Underground, to The Terrible Infants, to Dinner At The Twits, they create worlds that are more fantastical and warped than any other company. They surround their audiences with these constructions so completely that we believe any magic is possible.

But therein lies the rub

All these worlds are known to be surreal, dark, fictitious places that James Seager and Oliver Lansley have carefully crafted with a balance of creativity and realism. The beauty in these shows is that, by feeling comfortable in the fantasy, we can let go of our inhibitions, safe in the knowledge that we can recompose ourselves at the end of the adventure. Our reactions are purely a product of the experience, well within the parameters of the production’s immersive nature because Les Enfants Terribles have set the rules, created the guidelines and so can predict the scope of the response.

Inside Pussy Riot isn’t fictional. It may well be a stretched version of the truth; it may just as easily be a dilution of the true horror that the prisoners faced. We don’t know, nor are we meant to. We should feel that what we are experiencing is a Les Enfants Terribles treated version of fact; instead we note all too easily their parody without grounding ourselves.

We suspend disbelief when we should be relating it back to the here and now

But maybe this is our fault. Maybe we as a small audience group of 14 are so plugged into the system that we physically cannot rally against it, even when given the opportunity. Maybe we’re just too self-policing.

Inside Pussy Riot Saatchi Gallery Les Enfants Terribles

Image courtesy of Kenny Mathieson

How great is the influence of our surroundings in such a scenario? How much do these visuals tamper with the theatre performance and our self-policing ways?

From a design perspective we analyse how the visuals invade our sense of security and our emotions. Small ‘audience’ groups force a familiarity amongst strangers. Scenarios sit us shoulder-to-shoulder within impractical spaces. An unusual chemistry builds incredibly quickly as we lose our sense of safety and security through the process. It soon becomes clear how the presentation of this performance dictates more of the reaction than one may realize or be comfortable with. Being channelled like a herd of beasts through a regimented slaughterhouse generates a tension and claustrophobia. Again, the purchased ticket of safety blankets us initially, however the level of these changes in atmosphere, mood and emotion are heightened by the unpredictability of each room-to-room.

Inside Pussy Riot Saatchi Gallery Les Enfants Terribles

Image courtesy of Kenny Mathieson

The set design is disorientating – a huge amount of admiration goes to the team for creating such detail and applying such consideration to the standard rectangular gallery hall space. With a background in Psychology, Inside Pussy Riot‘s designer Zoe Koperski has an intimate style and approach, naturally complimenting the subject and ways of working for both fellow collaborators, Oliver Lansley and activist Nadya Tolokonnikova. None of the environments feel familiar, but each space plays on your emotive responses differently with the assistance of true hard facts staring you straight in the eyes. A threat riles you up into a forced connection through costume that clouds your own identity.

Visual masses of information absorb you with restricted space, light and isolation of the outside world. Certain spaces play literal to the story, while others are ethereal and comically challenge your reactions to a strange sensation of silly laughter and nervousness. Similarly with the costume design, uniform is obvious. Individual identity does not play a role and formality certainly does not apply to the exaggerated makeup and ridiculous remake of police and military outfitting. Pre-experience questionnaires assist in the production’s direct engagement stemming right down to social media exposure, challenging the audience’s beliefs and identity. All the while, your vision is clouded by the fraying edges of your knitted balaclava and an uneasy body temperature from the additional prison boiler suit.

Inside Pussy Riot Saatchi Gallery Les Enfants Terribles

Image courtesy of Kenny Mathieson

Visually, it cannot be described as anything other than a sensory overload. It’s incredibly impactful and inspiring from a design perspective. With this in mind, one could consider that the theatrical performance is to an extent smothered by the pressures of these surroundings. However, as representational of the underlying, controlling traits within our society, does theatre in this instance actually have the upper hand on all elements within this collaborative presentation? The fog that suppresses the theatre through costume, set and visual distraction derives a consideration that theatre plays an underlying game with its audience. Theatre riles our freedom of speech but controls us to the level that retains our need to remain amongst our social parameters. Visuals distract us as theatre subconsciously controls us as the literal as the puppet draped in the courtroom.

Inside Pussy Riot Saatchi Gallery Les Enfants Terribles

Image courtesy of Kenny Mathieson


Is this political theatre an immersive success?

As a whole this is a representation of the invasive flaws within today’s society using the incredible story of Pussy Riot five years ago. Freedom of speech is of huge importance in today’s society and should not ever be taken for granted. However, how suppressive is our ever evolving, invasive technological culture and therefore how free is this freedom of speech? We leave the experience considering this, reflecting on our roles and desires amongst the system. Of course, analysis aside, we also feeling a huge respect to the story and world wide representations of Nadya Tolokonnikova and Pussy Riot.

To read more about Inside Pussy Riot, which plays at the Saatchi Gallery until 24 December 2017, follow the theatre company on Twitter (@LesEnfantsTerr) or visit the gallery website – www.saatchigallery.com