Tuesday 8 August 2017

Palmyra – Summerhall, Edinburgh


In Palmyra, Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas have created a strong contender for “Best Piece of ‘Political Theatre,’ Edinburgh 2017.” Like their previous hit, Euro House, it is ostensibly a tightly rehearsed set of comic scenes exploring the deteriorating relationship between the two performers. Upon entering the stage to take their chairs, they discover Bert’s plate has been smashed. Nasi’s plate is fine. We don’t know how Bert’s plate got broken. We never find out. They put it behind them and carry on with their thing – here: whizzing about the stage on those little industrial trolley stands, to the strains of ostentatiously Western Classical Music (what precisely I couldn’t tell you off-hand). And this is the way that the piece builds its suggestive relationship to its title. As we know, Palmyra is the name of the ancient Semitic city, in modern-day Syria, which was the target of a massive campaign of destruction by ISIS. Palmyra here seems to stand, plausibly, for the entire region, and all the warfare and politics that that entails.

The dynamic between Bert and Nasi is crucial here. Bert is French, unnecessarily handsome, charming, and also frequently In The Wrong. Early on, he takes Nasi’s plate to the top of a ladder and drops it. Absolutely on purpose. When Nasi – bearded, shorter than Bert, more of a working class accent, maybe – reacts (over-reacts?), Bert appeals to the audience to recognise what a psychopath Nasi is. The entire show is a gradual amping up of this bullying dynamic. In the actual room it’s fine. It doesn’t feel so cruel that it’s no longer funny. It’s played – by both of them – for laughs, after all. Sure, there are set-pieces where it gets genuinely more tense than funny, but always in service of setting up another laugh rather than for the sake of it.

And this is the genius of the thing. Because the surface level of “two blokes making a funny clown show about making their funny clown show” is always there, we never have to get bogged down in mapping specific moments onto particular aspects of global politics. As a result, with that political commentary track running loudly in the background, I reckon we end up working at thinking harder about the links between the two dynamics than we would if all of it were being explicitly rammed down our throats. We’re not “being told what to think” at all. Of course, as a result, part of the reason I think this is the most intelligent show about American/Western Imperialism versus the savage retaliation of ISIS is because the entire thing could be seen to work as an enormous exercise in confirmation bias (or, more, I read onto it exactly what I believe, and then pat them on the back for being so acute). That said, it’s not as if the show is formless or says nothing. And it even throws up some “difficulty”. I mean, in the way I read it, “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys becomes an Anthem for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; the “you” of that song’s chorus suddenly seeming to be America, the “God” suddenly seeming much more present.

Indeed, the whole feels so finely tuned that you can read the piece in relation to any number of unequal power-dynamics, and indeed it feels so accurate (at least, to how I read politics) that it feels like at particularly acute analysis of power and abuse; any situation at all where one power is greater than another, and the ways in which the greater power uses charm and “reason” to excuse their own abuses and pathologise resistance. It doesn’t endorse or excuse anyone or anything. It just keeps on showing us this one analogous situation and, to an extent, it insolubility. As such, it’s a bloody good job it’s also funny, or this would also be the most depressing show on the Fringe too. To be honest, it probably still is. That’s probably what makes the jokes funny.

But, yes. Proper genius, this. Incredible pity it’s not on for longer. Here’s hoping it has a long, long post-Edinburgh life.

Until 13th Aug. 1.15pm. 55Mins. £10

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