Palmyra at Adelaide Festival
Palmyra is the ancient city in Syria: it was destroyed by ISIS soldiers in 2015 and has changed hands regularly during the war. Palmyra is also the name of a brilliantly conceived and ink-black two-hander by Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas. What are they? A classic straightman/fallguy comedy duo? Absurdist everymen? Astute psycho-political analysts?
To find out, Carly spoke to co-creator and performer Bertrand Lesca about this smash hit coming to Adelaide Festival. Read more below:
Palmyra was a massive hit at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. What has the journey of this show been since that point and why do you believe this is the perfect time for it to make its Australian premiere?
As you said, the show was made in 2017, so quite a while ago! We have made another show since, and we have also started making a new one. But PALMYRA was definitely a breakthrough for Nasi and I.
We are incredibly proud of PALMYRA and what it’s achieved so far. We still think that two years after, PALMYRA is still as relevant as it was when we first made it. Our first show EUROHOUSE is also something that is still touring although it was made in 2015 when the Greek crisis was at its worst.
Every show we have done focuses on one particular moment in history or politics which we think still reflects the world we live in today.
We also keep refining PALMYRA and discovering new things in the way we interact with the audience. It keeps changing all the time depending on what country we are in! This piece ends up being a bit of a sociological study of the country we perform it in, so we are very excited to see how people in Adelaide react to our show.
Tell us about the story behind Palmyra and the dual meaning of the name and how that may give us insight into the story about to unfold.
The destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra marked a turning point in the Syrian conflict and the way it was viewed from afar. The international media used the footage filmed by ISIS as a way of showing the “barbarity” of those fighters. It seemed to justify somehow why these people absolutely needed to be destroyed or annihilated.
When we discovered the footage, Nasi and I were stunned. But somehow we couldn’t quite understand why we were so shocked. It had touched a nerve and the reaction in the media also seemed to confirm that something big had happened; but what was it exactly?
This started our conversation around the piece. And the more we went in, the more we considered PALMYRA, the more we wanted to delve deeper into histories of conflicts. The concentric circles kept getting bigger and bigger and the show became a reflection on war, revenge and terrorism.
A two part question for you - The show has been described as taking audiences on a journey from laughter to discomfort almost instantly. What can audiences expect firstly, and secondly, as you perform it, what techniques or devices do you employ to pull this off?
Well, I would say this is pretty accurate. We use laughter and discomfort in equal measure during the show in order to create a certain tension within the room. Another critic also described PALMYRA as a “weird and strangely stressful” piece and I really like that quote.
We use tension in order to make people think about what they are seeing on stage and how they view conflict; the one unfolding in front of their eyes between Nasi and I and the one they know we are reflecting on; the real one, outside the theatre.
Most people get pretty infuriated by the end of the show. I have been called all sorts of names! In Belfast for example, a lady in the audience even shouted that I was “a manipulative prick”. This is the sort of reaction we get sometimes during the show. The more reactive people are, the better we have done our job. It creates a discomfort because people know exactly the type of conflict we are representing on stage. We throw up a mirror onto ourselves and people react in a very active way.
How have the reactions to the story differed not just as you have toured through different countries but also has the world political scene has moved – particularly in relation to Syria – over the years you have been performing?
This is something we are constantly asking ourselves. The conflict has come to an end now and is less intense than it was when we first started thinking about the show. Relatively speaking, ISIS only have a square metre left of what used to be an immense territory at the height of the conflict.
However we feel this is still a very important part of our common narrative. The Syrian conflict is still very present. It has shaped the current political context of the Middle East and has had very important repercussions on the US and Russia. Loads of people from Syria and other countries are also still seeking refuge in Europe and are desperately trying to rebuild their lives elsewhere.
Touring the show all over Europe, we have discovered that what we are most interested in is how conflicts affect us all – even those that are happening in other parts of the world.
Why does this story remain relevant to 2019 audiences? What do you hope that audiences walk away from the show realizing or considering?
When reading the news, we are often given a very binary perspective or analysis of the conflicts. PALMYRA is really asking the audience to reconsider what the media are telling us. It’s also asking people to reconsider the brutality with which people use the arts and civilisation as a weapon against other countries. The whole staging of the Russian orchestra in the amphitheatre of Palmyra is an example of how the country wanted to be perceived. It seemed to be saying, ’in the face of brutality, only culture and civilisation can win this war’. That is very debatable and this is what we want to discuss in the show.
Palmyra revealed some of the basic mechanisms at play during wars or conflicts more generally, and this is what we have tried to show as best we can. So I would say that the show has a very universal quality which is why it has travelled and aged so well. It can reflect any sort of conflict, but for us it was first and foremost about what happened in Syria.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:
Favourite production you have ever seen?
Palmyra. Have you heard of it?
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?
Adelaide, Australia. Without a doubt!
Plays or musicals?
Neither. Films. I definitely prefer films.
Dream role to perform?
Matilda in Matilda. Because she reads a lot and can make books fly to her hands.
A hobby you have beyond the theatre?
I love films. Especially really long ones. I am half way through Edvard Munch and I am already two and half hours in. I don’t know how long I have got left. I love it.
What’s next for you after this show?
Netflix and chill. (I neither have Netflix nor have much ability to chill). This is what I hope I would do anyway!
Palmyra opens at the Adelaide Festival on March 1 2019. You can get your tickets here.