by Tess Berry-Hart
Other people’s pain has never held particular enjoyment for me. By this I don’t mean that delicious frisson that you get when reading or watching great works of fiction, or the way that a well-crafted weepie can hijack your emotions and get you reaching for the tissues. I mean real pain, the pain that actually exists in the real world, the pain that has happened to other people. Misery memoirs and “based on a true story” epics are to me a poisoned chalice. I watched 12 Years A Slave through my fingers, out of a sense of duty, rather than enjoyment. If a particularly harrowing item of news comes on, I find myself reaching for the remote. And I’m not alone in this. There’s something about the jarring disjunct of pain that sits uneasily with our cushioned, Western society, it both horrifies and fascinates us because it reminds us that we still live in a primal world where danger and loss may overwhelm us at any time – and of our own mortality.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached my commission of talking to gay Russians to create a rapid-response theatre piece last summer. The King’s Head Theatre in Islington had contacted me in August after the laws banning both “the dissemination of homosexual propaganda” and the adoption of Russian children by gay parents (or even by straight parents who lived in a country where same-sex marriage is possible) were passed on a federal level throughout Russia. It was the silly season for news, but this story was deadly serious. Social media and newspapers alike were suddenly full of unforgettable images. Gay protest parades attacked, men and women with bleeding faces, smoke bombs, crying, shielding each other from the lines of black-helmeted police and howling Neo-Nazis. Stories of vigilantism, kidnappings, rapes and beatings in the face of police apathy, or at worst, connivance and blackmail, emerged in the press. And all this from a country where homosexuality had been legal for 20 years and who was shortly to be hosting the greatest of all sporting events, the Olympics. There was a wide sense of outrage in the arts community and a sense that we should be “doing something about it.” But what?
We decided that I had three weeks (it really was a rapid response!) to talk to gay Russians to get their perspective on the situation, to put their stories on stage, and give a voice to those who had their voices denied in their homeland. Entitled Sochi 2014, any profit we made would go directly to gay groups in Russia. Later it was developed into a four-week run at the Hope Theatre in Islington in February 2014. Our concern was that with such a lot of commentary in the media, it was easy to come across a Western bias. But what did Russians actually think?
Finding gay Russians to talk to and surmounting the language barrier was a job in itself, which I have written about elsewhere, but once I had amassed my contact list, I found myself strangely shy during the interviews. I’m no hard-boiled tabloid journalist. Asking “So how does that make you feel?” to a weeping or frightened interviewee filled me with horror. The experience of pain is in itself so tender, so personal and intimate, that encroaching on that sensitive territory seemed as great a violation as what engendered it in the first place. But here I was, seeking to pull that pain out, examine it, evaluate it, hold it up to public view. And worse still, as a playwright, I needed to edit that pain, stitch it in to a wider tapestry, and create a piece of theatre that people would actually want to come and see, take the trouble to navigate across London to, and spend their money on. Pain as entertainment, in fact.
But I knew I had to. Drama needs conflict and emotion to come alive onstage, and good verbatim theatre needs to dismantle that comfortable fourth-wall effect and rattle the audience’s complacency. Emotions are theatre’s life-blood. In theatre, events are happening right in front of you in real time; it’s the closest to real experience that you can get in the arts. So I bit the bullet and asked the questions that needed asking.
And people responded. Because pain is a psychological reaction, they needed to make sense of it, analyse it, offer it to me. Pain became a process rather than a constant state. Sometimes it was told bluntly, in just a few words, other times people skirted around the issue, or used metaphors to describe how they felt. But at all times they trusted me with their pain, and trusted that I would do the best with it.
“What’s the worst story you came across?” eagerly asked a few journalists who later interviewed me for the promotion of the play. The question irked me. Pain is a subjective experience, one person’s pain is one psychopath’s starting point; who am I to judge pain barriers? Who would get first prize out of my interviewees; the girl who had both arms and legs broken during a regional protest, or the man who was threatened with rape by a beer bottle, the teenager who arranged an Internet date with a good-looking man named “Stanislav”, only to be lured into a park, beaten up and later arrested for “hooliganism in a public place”? Were their stories more or less painful than the 22-year-old woman, who, ostracised by her family, has only one friend in the entire world? How about the story, widely reported in the media, of the brutal killing of Vlad Tornovoi by his workmates when he apparently told them he was gay? From the outside, applying a pain hierarchy seems easy; murder and death at the top, actual bodily harm in the middle, and varying degrees of psychological trauma at the bottom. But how would that spectrum equate to drama onstage?
In rehearsals this became an issue. Recreating a beating for dramatic effect is easy to stage; it’s harder to recreate the subjective effect on the victim. Showing not telling is a trope of playwriting. To say, “I feel pain,” is to diffuse its effectiveness. How then could an audience be shown someone’s internal pain? When we watched one of the videos of the abuse and torture of a young victim in rehearsals, several of the actors cried. How could we transmit that feeling to our audience?
I interviewed the journalist Masha Gessen, whose piece in the Guardian, “As a gay parent I must flee Russia or lose my children”, was instrumental. We spoke over Skype, after many failed attempts, when she was still in her apartment in Russia, just after the funeral of her friend and leading gay-rights campaigner Alexei Davydoff. The connection was flickering and her face was drawn and tired. A couple of times I asked her questions to which she responded flatly, “I can’t answer that.” Naively, I hadn’t realised that talking to me about the anti-gay laws might put her in danger in a country where at least 56 journalists had been killed since 1992. She told her story professionally, as one who has been asked it many times before. She was in the middle of moving her family to the US; she had had to get her eldest son Vova to the States immediately in case they took him away. “The thing about Russian law is that it’s not supposed to be retroactive, but often the first you know about it is when they turn up with the papers to take your kid away. As a journalist I’ve seen libel judgments imposed upon people who didn’t even know there was a case.”
Masha herself read her own part in the US performance of Sochi 2014 at the New York Propaganda Festival of Russian Voices in January 2014 which gave the piece a startling power. In the London performance the following month, the actress Stephanie Beattie played Masha’s part. She didn’t look like Masha, nor was she the same age range, nor did she attempt an impression of her. But her monologue became one of the pivotal moments of the play, a moment of intense stillness where a mother spoke of her dread at losing her children. Though pain was not explicitly spoken of, it came through and touched all that heard it; the pain of a loss of a friend, the pain of the loss of a family and homeland. It was heard and seen in her hunched stance, her frequent swallowing, her unnatural immobility. The actress had never seen my Skype interview with Masha, but instinctively she transmitted her pain in the gaps between her words. And it was felt by the audience watching too.
Since the production of Sochi 2014, I’ve been contacted by theatre makers all over the world, all eager to discuss a production to give the play a future life beyond the Olympics, as once the spotlight has moved away, the danger will return for all LGBT people and dissenters in Russia. There still remains hope, that all this pain will not have been for nothing, that out of it something positive will come.