Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Palmyra (Orbit Festival)

Nasi Voutsas and Bertrand Lesca
Nasi Voutsas and Bertrand Lesca
HOME. Manchester
03 October 2017 to 04 October 2017

Palmyra was one of Syria’s historical sites until it was overtaken by ISIS and the temples were destroyed, graves looted and the amphitheatre used to stage executions. This act of barbarism has inspired a piece of performance art by Nasi Voutsas and Bertrand Lesca which may be about the thin veneer of civilisation, or the seductive appeal of violence and its futility or the cruel pleasure of manipulating and controlling others. Or maybe none of these themes apply - as always with performance art it is not easy to be sure.

We can guess that Voutsas and Lesca are friends as well as partners. Pre-show the theatre is full of pop songs cheerfully extoliing the virtues of friendship. Yet if they are friends the relationship is under strain. Their physical clownish comic routines often end in fights and the use of a hammer becomes so threatening that a member of the audience is asked to guard it in case things get out of hand.

An atmosphere of violence hangs heavy over the production and is not limited to physical intimidation. Lesca verbally belittles Voutsas and makes him an object of derision – toying with his beard while pretending to talk to him as an equal. It feels like Voutsas in a relationship where he is subject to domestic abuse.

The audience is heavily involved in the show and is not immune to threat. The house lights are not fully extinguished so we are clearly visible and one or other of the performers constantly appeals for us to take his side in the argument.  At one point Lesca engages in a lengthy flirtation with a female member of the audience and routinely breaks off to slap and mock Voutsas as if he is so inured to violence he does not realise that others may find his behaviour repulsive. The point is easy to see: we could be next.

Palmyra illustrates a nightmarish culture in which violence is considered an acceptable response. When Lesca is unable to persuade the patron guarding the hammer to return it to him his solution is simply to go and find a bigger hammer.

Although Palmyra is full of violence it does not glamourise the subject. The actions of the cast are shown as nasty, vindictive and petty acts of the sort that you would feel ashamed of emulating. It is made clear that violence causes, rather than solves, problems.  Voutsas responds to the constant attacks on his dignity with a temper tantrum that leaves the stage littered with broken crockery that then has to be swept up. 

Palmyra is part of the Orbit Festival further details of which can be found at:

Reviewer: David Cunningham