07/09/2015 11:26 BST | Updated 04/09/2016 06:59 BST

Danger! High VOLTA-ge Theatre!

I should start by apologising for my puntastic headline, but actually it captures my experience of of the VOLTA International Festival, currently running at Dalston's Arcola Theatre perfectly.


When I first moved to London I lived just down the road from the location of the Arcola Theatre and I was struck by the underlying atmosphere of threat each time I ventured out onto Kingsland Road. Even after the gentrification that has taken hold of this vibrant part of the capital, this atmosphere still hangs in the air, and now as then it is due to the strange tension that arises from so many disparate peoples and cultures all living cheek by joule than any real chance of violence. Which makes it the perfect location for the festival, with it's ethos of allowing London audiences to witness the work of four international "ground breaking" playwrights and for the two plays I saw, as they both ran thick with bottled tension and excitement.

The Arcola Theatre itself was the first character of each piece. It's friendly and hip design and staff welcome you and make you feel warm and safe. I must also applaud them on having fantastic access provision for disabled people like me, which is no mean feat in an old industrial building. Being able to access all areas of this thriving arts space was a breath of fresh air and proves to any of those neigh sayers that it can be done. It also put me in a rather good mood as I took my place in the large studio 1 ready for Austria's Ewald Palmetshofer's "hamlet is dead. no gravity" to begin.


This piece is like an explosion, which blasted itself into every corner of this large imposing theatre space. With themes of class, family, love, hate, jealousy, religion and taboo the play pushes it's audience in all directions. The tension is tangible yet this tension is perfectly balanced with a dark humour, causing the whole room to burst into the kind of uncomfortable laughter you find it impossible to stiffle despite knowing this just isn't the place for it. As the piece is set at a funeral, this might be part of why imagined rules of etiquette created this feeling, but I am sure it also had it's roots in being able to see deep into the minds of the characters thanks to the dramatic technique used skilfully by Palmetshofer. The play jumps around in time, and space, and each member of the cast narrates the story from their experience allowing the viewer to bare witness to the truth behind the social niceties constricting the protagonists. The show slowly builds to a grim conclusion with a growing mania as if you are watching a naughty child vigorously shake a can of fizzy pop before passing it to another to open. You know something bad is going to happen but are powerless to stop it. However you really don't see what is coming until it is way too late, and the piece's shocking conclusion is a strange release. If I had to explain "hamlet is dead. no gravity" in one line it would be a play that resembles a debate about manners, between a group of people all on different types of illicit drugs, all locked in a room while they untangle a huge ball of knotted thread to an audience. A kind of scary Big Brother. I should point out that it's also really funny, but your laughter is a much a pressure release as it is a normal response to humour.


After that, I needed a drink and retired to the Arcola bar. Refreshed and with nerves calmed it was into the lift to the smaller studio 2 for Christopher Chen's "Caught". This is another roller-coaster of a play, but for different reasons. The show breaks into four sections, each exploring a different facet of the tension between art, race, politics and culture. This deeply clever work was stunning, and very funny. The room roared with laughter while being challenged to consider their own preconceptions, never really knowing what was coming next. Art exploring art might sound a bit too arty, but trust me this play is one of the most enjoyable ways to spend an hour and a half with your clothes on. Chan should be applauded as he uses theatre skillfully and with wit. Although I want to, I can't give too much away about "Caught" as each twist and turn is a joy to behold, but it is something that you must catch if you can. Superb writing and performances from the cast work so well within this space and as you leave the room you are unsure if the piece has actually ended, or if you are still living it as you walk out into the night, singing the Beach Boys... once you see it you'll know what I mean.

I dare not finish without heaping praise on the cast of both pieces, as their skills bring the words of the respective playwrights to life so fully and roundly you forget that many appear in each of the plays. Bravo to you all.

The festival runs until September 19th, and I feel a return visit is on the cards, as I really need to witness the two other plays, "I Call My Brothers" and "Ant Street". If they are of the same high standard as "hamlet is dead. no gravity" and "Caught" they are shows not to be missed. If you like your drama clever, funny and challenging then the VOLTA festival is for you. Even if you don't normally like that kind of thing, I'd give it a go because you deserve a treat now and then.

VOLTA Festival runs until 19th September.

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