Review: VOLTA Festival 2015, Arcola Theatre

“The problem with Hannes is…”

One can always rely on the Arcola to bring interesting writing to light and in the form of the VOLTA International Festival, Artistic Director Andrea Ferran has managed that four times over, bringing together new work by four celebrated international writers, translated into English for the first time – Christopher Chen, Jonas Hassen Khemiri, Ewald Palmetshofer and Roland Schimmelpfennig. With four directors, James Perkins designing and an ensemble covering all the shows, it proved to be a fascinating festival and one which deserves more attention than it received.

Caught by San Francisco-based Christopher Chen twists wonderfully around notions of truth and fiction as three separate but interlinked scenes toy with how art plays with and changes under our perceptions. Cressida Brown’s direction cleverly plays up how we all find our own truth in everything, no matter how the subject is approached, preconceived notions shaping us even as they’re deconstructed and always, always making us think about what we’ve just seen. Chen takes no prisoners in the complexity of some of his thinking but it’s fascinating stuff indeed.

Swedish writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri contributes I Call My Brothers, no less intense but a more internal experience as directed by Yael Shavit. In the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack on a Swedish city, Nabil Elouahabi’s Amor is holed up under suspicion – because he’s Muslim natch – and we follow him for 24 hours as he tries to deal with the situation. It’s a interesting study in Islamophobia in a country who many would consider to be proudly liberal and shows how national interests in the prevention of terrorism have overridden even the most basic of human rights. And as participants in his internal dialogue, Amber Aga, Rachid Sabitiri and Siubhan Harrison all keep things most lively.

I had more problems with Ant Street by the German Roland Schimmelpfennig, directed here by Amelia Sears. The idea of magical realism is a hard one to pull off effectively IMHO and what starts off as quirkiness quickly became irritating as the Cuban Sanchez family received a long-awaited parcel of mundane objects that turn out to be much more than they seem. The almost fairytale-like quality is amplified by Sears’ direction which sees the actors, including a strong Ony Uhiara, play up the childlike innocence but I just found the overall effect wanting.

Last but by no means least is hamlet is dead. no gravity by the Austrian playwright Ewald Palmetshofer, directed by Ferran herself. Complex, meta-theatrical, thought-provoking, frustrating, it’s a daring piece of theatre that invokes words like nihilistic even if I’m not 100% sure I know what I mean. Which is kind of what the characters feel too, circling around their attempts to find a meaning to their lives that constantly eludes them, probing their relationships from multiple angles (often within the same scene) and funny along with it. It’s the type of show to see without any prior knowledge and it is frustrating that this was the last performance of the run as I’d’ve recommended it wholeheartedly otherwise (not least for the excellent Cary Crankson).

Booking until 19th September

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