The Voila! Festival in London, now in its seventh year, provides audiences with an opportunity to see a varied range of work by European artists. This year, the eclectic programme features 23 shows at the Cockpit Theatre and at Rich Mix.
Staged across a two-week period that would have coincided with the UK’s proposed date of exit from the European Union, at a time when a recent survey suggested that a quarter of migrant workers in the arts have considered leaving the UK, it feels even more like a necessary exercise in bridge-building and solidarity – about 70% of this year’s programme is composed of work by European practitioners based in London.
The pieces are fringe-level in scale and include comedy and circus as well as theatre. Though the quality is varied, the work is always intriguing; there’s also a degree of thematic overlap, with several of the shows dealing with environmental crisis.
At the Cockpit, Hazel Lam’s solo dance piece Lighthouse (★★★) sees her engaged in a kind of aerial waltz with a series of PVC tubes that dangle from the ceiling like seaweed. She uses these tubes as a circus artist would use silks, twirling them into curls like the cord of an old-fashioned telephone, tangling her limbs in them and clambering up them. At several points she faceplants into a pile of plastic.
The balletically trained Lam is a capable clown, lolloping around the stage in bright-green gum boots. Her piece features striking images of her body entangled in plastic tubing, but its wordless and shapeless nature means it struggles to sustain itself over the course of its running time.
The Medea Hypothesis (★★) by London-based collective the Washing Machine Collective takes its inspiration from the theory that there is an alternative to the nurturing Gaia, an ecosystem that will sacrifice in order to survive. Greek myth is repurposed to address potential planetary catastrophe as an acrimoniously divorced couple feud over their unseen son. Video footage about the damage wreaked by plastic to marine life is projected on to the back wall, underlining the point that, as a species, humans are a disease. The concept is an interesting one, but the stilted performances and flat dialogue severely dilute its impact.
Pepper and Honey (★★★★), by the Notnow Collective, is a one-woman play written by Croatian playwright Kristina Gavran and performed by Croatian actor Tina Hofman. It tells the story of Ana, a Croatian immigrant in London hoping to set up her own patisserie business, and the grandmother who raised her and after whom she was named, who hopes to coax her back to the Adriatic island on which she grew up. To do this, she prepares batch after batch of sweet and spicy pepper and honey biscuits (recruiting audience members to help her with the baking process).
A warm and gentle show, it captures the transient and precarious nature of life as an immigrant in the UK in the current climate, forever having to prove your worth and never feeling truly accepted. It also conveys well the complex emotional push-pull that exists between the place you’ve made your home and the place from which you’ve come.
On Eleanor Field’s evocative kitchen set, Hofman nimbly shifts between the two Anas, the hopeful and “adventurous” immigrant and her tottering, black-clad old “baba” pouring her love into her pastry.
Over at Rich Mix, We Must Live by the Pushkinettes (★★★) takes the form of a goofy musical hurtle through Anna Karenina in which the nuances and emotional richness of the novel were jettisoned for silliness and song. It’s a very slight show, but they are all winning comedians – one of them does a very good impression of Vronsky’s horse – even if they have a tendency to latch on to a joke and repeat it until it runs out of puff.
Forbidden Stories (★★★) by the Ludens Ensemble tells the story of the divided island of Cyprus in English, Turkish and Greek – one thing the festival does is remind you how rare it is to hear other languages spoken on stage in the UK. The piece uses interviews with members of the Turkish and Greek communities to explore the events of 1974 and their aftermath, in the process demonstrating that there is much similarity and overlap in their stories.
Wearing ugly inside-out jackets and using an overhead projector to illustrate their accounts, some of the storytelling is muddy and clumsy, but when the focus shifts to the emotional impact of displacement – when one’s body is in one place and one’s heart in another – and what it feels like to return to a home not seen in 20 years, it is genuinely moving.
European Freaks (★★★★) by Hungarian theatre collective Stereo Akt is, surprisingly, one of the only pieces that deals explicitly with what it means to be European in the current moment. This inventive exercise in participatory performance is also the most ambitious and polished of the shows I saw, working with a different “focus group” of five people in every city to which it tours.
The four-person cast, clad in blue blazers and yellow and white turtle-necks, plays “Euro-humanoids”, robotic entities intent on observing and aping the behaviour of Europeans. The focus group is asked to reflect on and redesign the EU flag and anthem, before being asked what most concerns them about the future of Europe and probed on their prejudices and democratic tendencies.
The results of all this are animated on the wall behind them in real time. The seriousness with which the members of the focus group engages with the questions, and the commitment of the cast – smiling unnervingly, bodies glitching and twitching – elevate the piece, tempering the more absurdist elements and creating something that, while amusing and playful, also succeeds in making the audience think about European identity – and unity.