Palmyra – Battersea Arts Centre, London

Creators and performers: Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas

Dramaturg: Louise Stephens

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

It is good news that Palmyra, one of the big hits of the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is seeking out a wider UK audience. The bad news is that the conflict in Syria to which it relates continues to rage no less fiercely.

Palmyra, an ancient Syrian city, was home to monuments of incomparable beauty and historical interest. No more. The theme of this show, created and performed by Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas, is destruction. The pair revive their comic personas of Bert and Nasi, first seen in Eurohouse, still amusing us with their brand of absurdist physical comedy, but the mood is much darker and childlike squabbling is displaced by raw aggression.

A white plate is broken. Nasi is aghast and Bert taunts him, dropping another plate from high on a step ladder. Nasi explodes with rage, running amok with a hammer, more plates are broken and the value of all plates is diminished to zero. The visual metaphor is obvious, its presentation is visceral, darkly funny and deeply shocking.

The title of the 55-minute show is the only direct reference made to Syria and no explanations are offered for the violence and destruction seen on stage. Pointlessness is the point of the show, or, at least, one of its points. Lesca and Voutsas do not concern themselves with politics nor, specifically, with human carnage; rather, they focus on the irreversible damage to the human spirit that comes from the obliteration of history, culture and beauty. Through comedy, they also dig down to the roots of anger, hatred and revenge and ask us to find our own explanations for things that we might readily pass off as inexplicable.

Palmyra has already picked up several Fringe Theatre awards, well merited for its inventiveness and unnerving power. It leaves its audiences feeling as shattered as the fragmented crockery that remains lying on the floor when the performers take their bows..

Runs until 14 April 2018 at Battersea Arts Centre; from 17 April to 28 April 2018 at Shoreditch Town Hall | Image: Alex Brenner


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