SOCHI 2014 THEATRE REVIEW
For uni. It’s over now so you cannae go see it but you can enjoy my words. Hopefully.
Sometimes you’re thankful when the artist assumes you’re an idiot. Tess Berry-Hart, the playwright behind Sochi 2014, has mercifully provided a definition of verbatim theatre in the programme for us luddites who missed the format’s fashionable peak in 2011. Knowing that the script is compiled from interview extracts, written sources and media commentary allows the audience to soak up the history lesson in Russian gay rights, neatly centred around the current Olympic occupation, with a self-satisfied smirk.
And it certainly is a lesson. The fact that being gay was only decriminalised in Russia in 1993 is something we should have known. The fact that Russia was ostracised while the West swam in acid and sexual liberation seems obvious, but Stephanie Beattie, playing a journalist, reminds us with a jolt: “While you guys were having the 60s and 70s, us guys were having the Soviet Union.”
There are plenty of lines in this vein – excellent summations of attitudes, histories and mindsets. In particular an exchange between activist Peter Tatchell and a group of anti-gay protesters makes my blood run as cold as the bobsleigh track: when Tatchell asks why they are angry at gay people and not the corrupt government, the protestors reply: “They’re easy! We can get them. We can’t get the others.”
The cast of five scurry around the tiny pub space in brightly coloured tracksuits, moving rapidly from one instance of injustice to the next. Adam Venus is excellent glue for such a high-paced production in his portrayal of imposing and authoritative figures, from Putin himself to a CNN anchor. A scene juxtaposing voices from the Russian establishment and apolitical organisations like the IOC with past proclamations about the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany is deftly executed. With any less care it would have descended into the theatrical equivalent of an internet comment thread, but the script cleverly examines its own artifice with flair.
There are also attempts to engage with the problematic elements of the anti-Russia protests. Stephen Fry’s documentary fodder, masquerading as a moral crusade to boycott the Winter Games, becomes a trope of impotence. But then we’re told that a petition, which Fry retweeted, actually succeeded in freeing Russian LGBQT activist and asylum seeker Ira Putilova from a detention centre in the UK. Her story is a heartening one, but it’s clear that the tweets and media attention guilted the British government into releasing her. The play’s claustrophobic structure means this scene comes minutes after we’ve witnessed a teenager be urinated on by those trying to cleanse him of his sexuality – something Putin has instructed his institutions to permit via turning a blind eye. The point is made that all governments are fallible and easily swayed, it’s only the direction of the pendulum’s swing that divides East and West.
Sochi 2014, which defies its small venue and smaller budget with gusto, sometimes works too hard on keeping arguments water-tight when it should be fleshing out characters. But this piece of theatre does its job well. It not only entertains and educates, but shines a light on the LGBQT residents of Russia in the hope of prolonging the media coverage for a little longer. Let’s hope it helps keep the vulnerable out of total darkness.