|Nasi Voutsas and Bertrand Lesca in Palmyra. Photo: Alex Brenner|
Conceived and performed by Nasi Voutsas and Bertrand Lesca.Dramaturgy. Louise Stephens. Lighting design. Jo Palmer. Touring technician. Ruth Green. Producers. Edward Fortes and Jo Mackie. AC Arts Main Theatre . March 1-5 Adelaide Festival 2019.
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
|Palmyra Photo: Alex Brenner|
I remember vividly the shock and dismay at the willful destruction of ancient buildings and artefacts in the Syrian city of Palmyra by the soldiers of ISIS. The questions flooded in. How could human beings inflict such destruction on invaluable antiquities? What kind of people are these who harbor no love or respect for ancient cultures? Who is responsible for such an act of cultural violation? Is it the members of ISIS who inflict the damage? Is it the foreign troops intent on defeating the battle for an independent caliphate? Is it an inherent instinct within the human struggle for survival.?
Actor, Nasi Voutsas portrays shock and disbelief at the sight of shattered fragments of crockery by the side of a chair upon the stage. He moves to a seat on the other side and sits, silent and still, alongside an unbroken plate. Fellow performer Bertrand Lesca begins the music for “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” and both commence a circular dance on a trolley, with Lesca swinging the trolley ridden by Voutsas. Suspense and laughter swell throughout the audience with each turn and traverse across the stage. The precipice of danger is imminent, only to be prevented by Lesca as he grasps Voutsas’s arm and swings him in yet another direction. He is in control., until the rising threat and undercurrent of violence emerges with a clash of trolley and chair. The audience laughs as the trolley sweeps back and forth, And then, as if in a moment of sudden realization, silence falls upon the auditorium, and the mind fills with questions.
What is going on? Why is Nasi violently wielding a hammer and screaming at high pitches of frustration? Why has the relationship shifted from one of amicable playfulness to one of sinister threat? Why is the audience being drawn in by Lesca to assist in preventing the tension from escalating into violent confrontation, as Nasi spreads the stage with shattered fragments of plates. Whose side are we supposed to be on, that of the silent, sullen Voustas or the enigmatic, charming and seductively plausible Lesca?
“What do you want?” Lesca asks. The Frenchman and lover of art and culture seeks the answer from the silent Syrian. “I want you to leave” comes the soft reply. Lesca leaves and the lights slowly fade on the solitary figure circling on his stomach on the trolley in the centre of the shattered remnants he has dispersed across the floor during his silent protestation
Palmyra is the theatre of debate. It is a quest for comprehension, an understanding of psychological motive and impulsive human response to conflict. Voutsas and Lesca have chosen to present it as a hypothetical riddle, couched at the outset in the comic action of sparring clowns before drawing the audience in to the unsettling and bewildering relationship between two men from different cultures. As such its success lies in the willing participation of an audience, subtly persuaded by Lesca to be complicit in his argument
Palmyra casts a long shadow over cultural and historical complexity. Provocative and confronting, the performance invites active response, and yet no audience at the performance I saw ventured on to the stage to help pick up the thousands of shattered fragments of crockery strewn across the stage. Have apathy, fear and indifference to other lives, other faiths and other human beings shrouded us in veils of alienation? We are left to unravel the riddle for ourselves. Palmyra provides no answers except in our own imaginings. A short Q&A could have helped to unlock the answers to the riddle. But this is theatre of the intellect, challenging opinion, and provoking thought, and leaving one with the impression we are all complicit in the act of destruction.