Palmyra

In her opus Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag explores the ways in which images of conflict can be altered for the benefit of a particular social cause or political group. No photograph, no snapshot of violence is neutral, she argues. The images of far-off global conflicts we see in the papers, inarguably heart-rending as they might be, are consistently informed by their context: ‘all photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions’. It is this battle for the ownership of war narratives, for the power to represent oneself as victim or aggressor, that forms the central tension of Palmyra, a two-hander starring Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas. Fresh off the success of their 2016 show Eurohouse, Lesca and Voutsas bring an explosive new piece to Summerhall’s Old Lab stage - gleefully provocative and painfully tender in equal measure.

The strength of Palmyra lies not only in its highly competent leads, but in its bold use of noise, movement, and music.

The play uses the sacking of the ancient city of Palmyra by the Islamic State in 2015 as a springboard for a more general discussion on violence, civilisation and spectatorship. No mention of the Syrian Civil War is made beyond a brief note in the programme: instead, we witness a bitter rivalry between two collaborators, played out with arresting physicality. The duo vie for the audience’s sympathy and attention; Lesca is darkly charismatic, Voutsas quiet yet volatile. The audience becomes jury as each performer tries to convince them of the other’s guilt. They drop china plates from ladders, sweep them up again, spin each other on dolly boards until the stage is littered with sharp white debris. What transpires for the next hour is an incendiary journey into the psychology of destruction, and the role of the spectator in global conflict.

The strength of Palmyra lies not only in its highly competent leads, but in its bold use of noise, movement, and music. The theme of tension between two irreconcilable points is evoked through the noise of shattered crockery, the silence of festering anger. We hear musical interludes ranging from the Beach Boys to opera, which call us to question who or what is civilised, who or what is barbaric. Over the course of the play, Lesca and Voutsas create a rapport with the audience which is very special indeed, manipulating their jury with wit in a thoughtful piece which neatly toes the line between subtlety and symbolism.

Reviews by Alice Markey

Underbelly’s Circus Hub on the Meadows

Courtney Act: The Girl from Oz

★★★★
Northern Stage at Summerhall

You've Changed

★★★★
Underbelly, Cowgate

Julio Torres: My Favourite Shapes

★★★★★
Scottish Storytelling Centre

The Illusion of Truth

★★★★
Summerhall

Palmyra

★★★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

Following the success of their debut show Eurohouse, Bert & Nasi return to Edinburgh with Palmyra, an exploration of revenge, the politics of destruction and what we consider to be barbaric. Palmyra invites people to step back from the news, looking at what lies beneath, and beyond, civilization. In 2016, Bert & Nasi were nominated for a Total Theatre Award for Innovation, Experimentation and Playing with Form. ‘Lesca and Voutsas are the perfect double act’ (Stage).