Every so often, a new company knocks your socks off. Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas have only made two shows together, but they are, to my mind, one of the most exciting prospects in British theatre. They've caught the fractious temperature of our times, but they've done so by clowning. Their shows are lethally funny, but the laughs come laced with violence.
They are, essentially, a classic double act – straight man and fall guy – but they give that comic staple the sourest of twists. Lesca's tall, handsome and, crucially, French. He's so smooth onstage, so swishly charming, that you can't help but hate him for his hauteur. Voutsas, meanwhile, is a Greek Londoner, and as gormless as he is guileless. His default expression is borderline braindead, a pure naïf with these pitiable puppydog eyes. When he gets things wrong, he gets it in the neck – badly.
Imagine Basil Fawlty and Manuel without the overblown apoplexy or outright idiocy
It's an onstage dynamic that's absolute dynamite. Imagine Basil Fawlty and Manuel without the overblown apoplexy or outright idiocy that makes their beatings seem plain silly. When Lesca turns on Voutsas, it's calculated and controlled and all the more awful for it. Theirs isn't cartoon violence, it's outright abuse: less straight man and fall guy than bully and whipping boy, tyrant and victim, oppressor and oppressed. They can still make you smile – until it stops being funny.
What elevates their work is its political edge and, onstage, they personify the power dynamics of life. In their debut show, Eurohouse, they embodied the Greek financial crisis; Lesca standing in for punitive EU powerhouses, Voutsas for a crippled nation trying to keep pace. Palmyra pushed that powerplay even further: one broken plate escalated into a stageful of smashed crockery. By the time a hammer comes out, it feels fraught with real danger – as explosive as every arms race in history. Jacques Lecoq, the guy who wrote the rulebook on clowning, always said clowns couldn't be political. Lesca and Voutsas prove him wrong. Both shows are at Battersea Arts Centre this week, then Shoreditch Town Hall.
Both performers started out in quirky devised companies – Voutsas with ANTLER, Lesca with Fellswoop. They met, one Edinburgh Fringe, when they're own shows were struggling and, having got on, decided to make something together. "I remember thinking, this could be really bad," Voutsas recalls. "We didn't really know each other at all." Free from the pressures of up-and-coming companies, something clicked on its own.
Lesca says they "started to enjoy the experience of being horrible to each other."
Inspired by the opening of Forced Entertainment's Bloody Mess, a massive argument that grows out of two people moving chairs, Lesca says they "started to enjoy the experience of being horrible to each other." Their clowns seemed to chime, but, as Voutsas points out, "as much as they're clowns, they're extensions of us as well. Sadly, we are those people. It's us pushed to an extreme."
They're currently working on a new show – an end to the trilogy. "Even more global," Lesca says: a look at the polarization of public opinion, everything from Twitterspats to Trump and, of course, Brexit. It leaves plenty of room for vitriol – the vital ingredient in their work to date – but the challenge is to round things off. "We want to find out if reconciliation is possible."
If there's a question mark, it's the risk of repetition. Are these two clowns doomed to lock horns forever? "We're making a dance piece," Voutsas deadpans. The thing is, he's serious. They've been in residence at The Place. Expect a fair bit of treading on toes.