Venue: The MAC, Belfast
Date: 5 May 2018
Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival
Give a man a hammer; take it away. Hand it to a third party for safe keeping. Ask for the weapon to be returned. Negotiate a settlement. Brandish the hammer in a man’s face. It’s a great joke – isn’t it? So why is he acting afraid? Smash a man’s property to smithereens, while smiling sweetly and speaking softly. Why is he annoyed? Who’s the innocent victim? Who’s the aggressor? Where’s the dividing line? Is the whole thing just lads being lads or is there something deeper, riskier, more dangerous at play?
Physical theatre and clowning specialists Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas follow up their highly acclaimed Eurohouse with another brilliant double-hander that begins as a squabble in the playground before gathering momentum and going horribly wrong.
As an examination of complex human behaviour and interpersonal relationships, this would be an intriguing, queasily amusing affair. But its title gives a clue to a bigger picture and a much darker context.
Palmyra: a beautiful, ancient Semitic city in Syria, the seat of the temples of Bel and Baalshamin and the iconic Arch of Triumph: Palmyra: one of the world’s most visited tourist sites; Palmyra: its temples destroyed, its graves looted, its amphitheatre used by Daesh as the venue for public executions.
In 2016, a year after the ISIS attacks and the removal of its fighters from the city, a concert entitled With a Prayer from Palmyra: Music Revives the Ancient Walls was performed in that place.
It was not the first time that Russian conducting maestro Valery Gergiev, a regular visitor to Belfast, had stood with an orchestra on a makeshift stage in a site of wanton disaster and made music to soothe the soul. Against the backdrop of the dusty rubble of shattered temples and amphitheatre, he addressed the audience:
“Here on this great stage, our concert in Palmyra is our appeal for everyone to come to peace and unity, to unite and work against this evil, against terrorism. We protest against barbarians who destroyed wonderful monuments of world culture. We protest against the execution of people here on this great stage.”
Gergiev’s heartfelt plea provided Lesca and Voutsas with a creative starting point.
Before uttering a word, the pair present a striking physical contrast: Lesca tall, slim, oozing easy French charm and assurance; Voutsas neatly built, swarthy, bearded, tense and watchful.
An apparent friendship of equals slowly deteriorates into a game of cat and mouse. They begin by hanging out together, playing some music, having a laugh. But in the blink of an eye, an affectionate, balletic dance sequence on skateboards lurches into a spot of spiteful bullying. The gleeful smashing of a clean white plate is a nasty little gesture of domination. And so the stress levels build.
Off the back of a disturbing piece of video footage, the audience is skilfully drawn into the action and encouraged to take part in a swirling, futile tit-for-tat argument over the ownership and destination of the hammer. It does not take much of a leap of imagination to translate this spontaneous argy bargy into the contradictory tangle of international interests and power struggles that propels the appalling and apparently endless conflict in Syria.
For concrete rubble and ravaged towns, substitute mounting heaps of shattered white china on stage. For Bachar el-Assad’s bellicose sweet talk and disdain for his own people, substitute Lesca’s knowing humiliation of the bearded Voutsas. For camaraderie turned toxic, substitute a war which grows more horrifying, more tortuous, more inhumane by the day.
Palmyra is a quiet, engaging, beautifully controlled scream of protest, whose impact leaves us unsettled and outraged. Political theatre does not necessarily need to be angry and shouty. This small-scale, subtle show indicates another way.