A play about the horrors of homophobia is never going to be an easy ride, especially with the Russian Winter Olympics in recent history, not to mention Uganda’s latest homophobic legislation. Sochi 2014 is a hard-hitting, challenging, and powerfully presented piece of theatre that draws the audience in and engages them with a variety of devices. Five actors, playing no fewer than sixty-two people, portray the atrocious discrimination against what Russia has called “non-traditional sexual relations” in a series of vignettes which draw from many sources and ideas.
This is a play for everyone of an adult and sensible disposition to see, showing that homophobia remains one of the worst abuses of human rights in 2014.
The venue, a dark, brick, barrel-shaped bunker, is perfect for this underground and eerie exposition, since there is something unpleasantly basic about the prejudices being discussed. Dotted around the playing space and on the benches we sit on are pro-gay placards, but on the back wall is a sinister drop constructed of sheets of corrugated iron: one immediately thinks of an iron curtain. Perched on top of this construction are two small screens which face the two sides of the L-shaped audience. We are trapped in Soviet Russia, seeing that technology, if not society, has moved on.
As the screens project captions describing each section, the cast takes us imaginatively and, it must be said, angrily through an alarming history of institutionalised bigotry, propaganda, and absurd rhetoric. We learn from the outset that Putin thinks of homosexuality as abnormal; that Church and State hold hands over this stance; that though Stalin criminalised homosexuality in 1934, it was actually decriminalised in 1993 (but with the proviso that it should be kept out of sight).
It would be impossible to single out one of the cast, since this is a tight ensemble piece in which each actor works in harmony, even when portraying opposing views. From the start, they eyeball the audience to draw sympathy; complex movements are performed without complication; violence is alluded to rather than gratuitously acted out. The scene where one actor tells her story while her movements are impersonated by the other four brings a deft, witty and perfectly executed illustration that we are all part of this, whatever our sexuality or opinion.
Each section of the drama is announced by captions on the screens, such as ‘Being Gay is Normal,’ or ‘They Are Not Russian,’ ‘Queer Diasporas’ and so on. Every new title highlights yet another atrocity, whether part of the Sochi Olympics, public or private lives, or what sometimes feels like personal testimony. In less accomplished hands, this piece would come over as a righteous rant, or play-acting, but the cast seem passionate about the issue and therefore bring realism to every character they portray without resorting to earnest acting or silly accents.
There is no high camp, or overt suggestion of any LGBT stereotypes; all roles are acted with subtlety. At the conclusion, as all players gather behind a large rainbow flag, the symbol becomes a potent illustration of solidarity. This is a play for everyone of an adult and sensible disposition to see, showing that homophobia remains one of the most pathetic abuses of human rights in 2014.