Edinburgh review: Palmyra (Summerhall)

Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas make art out of abuse in their new and violent clowning show at the fringe

Nasi Voutsas and Bertrand Lesca in Palmyra
Nasi Voutsas and Bertrand Lesca in Palmyra
© Alex Brenner

Can abuse be an art-form? If so, then Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas might rank alongside the Old Masters. If not, well, we should probably call some sort of helpline. There were moments in Palmyra when I wasn’t sure whether to review them or report them.

It’s rare to see emerging artists with such a strong signature style. Lesca and Voutsas are clowning, but without the slightest scrap of cutesiness. The games they play aren’t innocent improvisations, all twee naïveté. They’re acts of aggression and cycles of violence. Push me, pull you. Smack you in the head.

Essentially, they take the classic double act dymanic – straight man, fall guy – and give it the sourest of twists. Lesca is tall, handsome and French, with an air of easy superiority. Voutsas, bless him, not so much. He’s Greek and gormless with the most pitiable, puppydog eyes you’ve ever seen. They’re more like ringmaster and whipping boy; organ grinder and performing monkey.

In last year’s Eurohouse, which returns later this month, the two turned that toxic onstage relationship into an echo of the EU’s dominance over Greece. Lesca set the pace, then let loose whenever Voutsas fell short. What was ticklish to start grew increasingly uncomfortable; so vicious and cruel as to seem unstomachable. Palmyra is much the same – and then some.

What starts with a simple act of collaboration – Lesca leading Voutsas in a tender dance on wheels – descends into an arms race of passive aggression. It’s triggered by envy: Voutsas has a white plate, Lesca’s is broken. One small, unnecessary destructive impulse later, we’re on a slippery, slippery slope towards a stage full of smashed crockery.

The one-upmanship is beautifully choreographed. When Voutsas is pushed into a corner, his only option is to push back. He steps offstage and returns with a hammer; a show of strength as a form of self-defence. Only aggression isn’t that easily controlled. People snap. Minutes later he’s swishing it inches away from Lesca’s face.

Palmyra is the ancient city in Syria, smashed to pieces by ISIS soldiers. The title throws a political weight on this personal squabble. It’s a look at destruction in place of collaboration and creation; what it means to throw one’s toys out of the pram. There’s a superb moment when Voutsas shows us rehearsal footage of Lesca threatening him with a hammer, supposedly pushing too far and losing control. As with any propaganda, however, we don’t know what’s real, what’s fake and what’s just happened.

Good god, it’s a stressful watch, though. It’s not just that the pair are flirting with danger, it’s that there’s no such thing as controlled aggression. All the way through, they make sure we’re implicated; appealing to our sympathies and asking us to pick sides – Voutsas’ implosive underdog or Lesca’s controlled aggressor. Someone’s given the hammer for safe-keeping.

Stressful, yes, but sublime as well. Palmyra‘s played with the lightest of touches, and, actually, the utmost of control. Appalling as it is, it keeps absurdity in sight, and ends in the only way it can: with no going back. There’s a saying on the internet: this is why we can’t have nice things. Well, this is why not.

Palmyra runs at Summerhall until 13 August, 13.15.

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