Ostensibly, the name ‘Palmyra’ is a misnomer for this show, given that the city in Syria or the on-going war in the Middle-East are not mentioned once throughout.
Instead, the audience are presented with a metatheatrical performance piece, very much in the mould of the work of Chris Thorpe or Chris Goode, which invites us to reflect on the competitive, vitriolic, and violent relationship between the two performers, Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas.
Whilst Lesca, with his effortless Gallic urbanity and eloquence, seems to deliberately represent the Western allied forces and their methods, Voutsas, in his seething but less articulate fury, seems to suggest the unmitigated anger and violence with which Islamic State militants have been typically characterised.
In reality, neither performer is any less intimidating or brutal in the methods they employ upon one another – a comment, perhaps, on the way in which we in the UK are fed a subjective, Western-centric political discourse that ignores the motivations behind the actions of ISIS in destroying Palmyra’s temples and religious iconography.
With its stylised smashing of pottery and manic presentation of violence, Palmyra is testament to Antonin Artaud’s maxim that: “Theatre should create confusion.” That said, the show’s confident and frequent use of silence invites viewers to intelligently reflect on pressing political and religious issues through the rich and varied metaphors on offer.
With acute improvised humour and regular Brechtian breaking of the fourth wall, Lesca and Voutsas do an impressive job of creating a shared sense of complicity amongst theatre-goers, at one point giving responsibility for the safe-keeping of a hammer to an audience member.
However, despite its helter-skelter personal conflict that speaks far beyond its confines, the antagonistic dialogue between the lead pair becomes somewhat repetitive. Perhaps the bitter bickering of the signifiers is in an effort to articulate the fundamentally opposed positions of the signified: that said, the show would be improved if new or nuanced dramatic means were found to express this.
On balance, though, Palmyra is a finely-crafted and highly-intelligent reflection on complex geopolitical issues and a pressingly-relevant reflection on the motivations behind revenge and retaliation.
Review by Ben Miller
The ancient city of Palmyra was one of the best preserved in the world. Tourists flocked from around the world to
look at the iconic temples of Bel and Baalshamin, as well as the Arch of Triumph. Until 2015, when ISIS gained control of the city, destroyed its temples, looted its graves and used its amphitheatre to stage executions.
A year later, after ISIS had been removed from the city, a concert entitled, “With a Prayer from Palmyra: Music Revives the Ancient Walls”, was staged on the site.
In his opening statement prior to the concert the former lead conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, Valery
Gergiev, said: Here on this great stage, our concert in Palmyra is our appeal for everyone to come to peace and unity, to unite and work against this evil, against terrorism. (…) We protest against barbarians who destroyed wonderful monuments of world culture. We protest against the execution of people here on this great stage.
This is where the piece started.
Performers: Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas
Dramaturgy: Louise Stephens
Lighting: Jo Palmer
Production Manager: Tom Brennan
Producer: Edward Fortes
Marketing consultancy: Jo Manavopoulou / Pulp & PIth
Production photos: Alex Brenner
Following the run at Battersea Arts Centre, PALMYRA will also run for two weeks at
Shoreditch Town Hall from 17–28 April 2018