By Konstantin Kisin’s own admission, it was not so long ago that he was, in his words, “a nobody” – he wasn’t being overly self-deprecatory, he was simply acknowledging that it was a news story about him towards the end of 2018 that made news headlines in the UK and much further afield. A gig organised by ‘Unicef on Campus’ required him to agree to not say anything whatsoever about “racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia or anti-religion or anti-atheism”. The gig was to be held at the School of African and Oriental Studies, based in London’s Russell Square, though SOAS was merely the host venue and does not have any ‘behavioural agreement’ for its own events.
Kisin’s debut Edinburgh show, Orwell That Ends Well, is how comedy shows should be – insightful as well as amusing, intelligent as well as hilarious. He makes much of his Russian heritage, finding himself blessed to be in a country that “has a Conservative leader with a Russian name and a Labour leader with Russian policies”. He makes more of his Jewish heritage now than he used to, at least partly because he was called a Nazi, and the sheer irony was good comedy material. And then there’s this: “As a Russian, I admire Jeremy Corbyn. He’s tough. The KGB could interrogate him for a week and still not find out what his position on Brexit is.”
The exploration of free speech from the perspective of someone whose family suffered at the hands of the Soviet Union was hugely enlightening. I had no idea, for instance, that the term ‘politically incorrect’ comes from the days of the USSR – someone could be ‘factually correct’ but ‘politically incorrect’, such that there were certain things that could not be said in public, however true they were, because that wouldn’t be towing the party line. Anyone who disagrees with what the Government says to be correct can expect a prison sentence. Therefore, if we now live in a Britain where political correctness has gone mad, then this is a very serious matter: even during a stand-up comedy performance. It’s riveting stuff.
Kisin is against censoring any of his critics, however unpleasant their remarks may be – and while not everyone would agree with his stance, he puts forward a compelling argument. In essence, the right to say something should be as enshrined as the right to disagree with an opinion. He has examples of his own to demonstrate the point being made, which I won’t regurgitate here, but my own would be that I could say that the world is flat. The principle of free speech determines I have the right to say that, and the same principle determines that other people have the right to tell me not to be so ridiculous.
He talks about his student days, when he found himself without a penny to his name. After falling into rent arrears, he had no choice but to go without a roof over his head for a number of weeks and he begged for food. Being offended, Kisin notes, to applause from the audience, “is a luxury that people who truly struggle do not have”. Now there’s something to think about thanks to this analytical and perceptive performance.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Konstantin Kisin, who made international headlines by refusing to sign a ‘safe space’ contract for a university gig, offers a fiercely intelligent, uncompromising look at identity, freedom of expression and ‘wokeness’ in his debut hour.
Informed by his experiences of growing up in the Soviet Union, which his grandfather fled to avoid state censorship, Kisin dives head-first into the heated debate about the limits of free expression and the role of political correctness, safe spaces and trigger warnings in shaping British society.
Packed full of strong gags and razor-sharp observations about the state of the world, Orwell That Ends Well carefully walks the line between offence and humour as it tears into the sacred myths of modern society.
Directed by Jonathan Pie co-writer Andrew Doyle, Kisin’s debut show is guaranteed to entertain and ruffle feathers in equal measure.
Konstantin Kisin: Orwell That Ends Well
Gilded Balloon (Wee Room)
31 July – 26 Aug 2019