Photo credit: Alex Brenner
Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas met two years ago, and have been making work together ever since. Voutsas is half-Greek, Lesca is French, and their work is distinctive – using on mime, clowning and humour as a lens through which to view big issues and ideas.
The duo’s first show, Eurohouse, tackled Brexit, the economic cricis in Greece and the EU’s role in that, and nationalism, all underscored by a cheesy, Europop soundtrack. New show Palmyra takes the Syrian town of the same name as its starting point, and asks what drives people (in this case ISIS) to destroy and cause harm. It’s heavy stuff, but it’s also very, very funny.
“The humour is really important to us,” says Voutsas. “We try to undercut the intensity with humour. It puts the audience on a weird footing, which is really interesting ground to be on. We like being on uneven ground because it makes you concentrate. We use humour to almost undermine the violence and the anger. We find that balance interesting.”
Lesca continues: “We also have to guage how long we can make people laugh for. How long can we make a moment last? When do people stop laughing? Sometimes a thing is funny, but then because of how long we make it go on for, it becomes very heavy.”
Both admit that Palmyra can be a difficult watch, but it’s more complex than just being a show about destruction. “We can’t sum up our shows in once sentence – that’s what makes us want to do shows,” says Lesca. “If it’s a thing that people really think about a lot, that’s something we want to make a show about. We want to understand our own thoughts about it. It’s really horrible, what’s happening, but we don’t know how we got here – for us, making shows is also about us trying to understand.”
Photo credit: Alex Brenner
I ask about the process of making a show that tries to put such big themes on stage, and Voutsas is thoughtful. “We started making Palmyra with a view to looking at that region, and then that led us into looking at a lot of historical material, radicalisation, and trying to give ourselves lots to think about! With this piece and with Eurohouse, it was a huge topic. With Eurohouse, the EU’s struggles with Greece were still complicated, but it was contained, in a way. This feels like there are so many strands, which was sometimes overwhelming, but was also a really interesting process trying to pinpoint what we wanted to look at.”
Eurohouse used Voutsas’s Greek heritage and Lesca’s Frenchness to raise interesting questions about the EU and its role in Greece’s economic crisis, and how the UK’s EU referendum might change the EU’s role and approach. It felt very much like the two performers’ personal experiences formed part of the show, and they played versions of themselves on stage. Both tell me, though, that Palmyra is just as personal, despite neither having an explicit connection to the Middle East.
“I think it feels very personal,” says Lesca. “Us wanting to do a show about Palmyra happened because of the Paris attack, too. It was such a huge thing, and we also wanted to question the reaction that it prompted. How is it that after such a attack, a country can say, as a nation, we stand against this, and we are going to attack back, no matter what the cost?”
“It felt like the nation whole-heartedly supported that. In a way, we felt very much included in that – we were very shocked and that makes people do strange things. That was the personal trigger for making a show like Palymra. The personal trigger for Eurohouse was feeling the injustice of how the EU treated Greece. For Palmyra, it’s almost going further – it feels like it’s even more about us, and about us working together.”
Their working relationship is an interesting one, with the versions of themselves they play onstage often being adverserial, violent, angry. Lesca explains this process: “In Eurohouse, Nasi was being really humiliated. And in Palmyra, he’s being humiliated again, and at some point he feels a desire for revenge. We wanted to look at that anger. Making these two pieces helped us to understand how radicalisation could happen. We were always trying to see it from the other side, the other perspective. Why do some people feel the need to destory these monuments, to execute people? We wanted to question that impulse.”
Photo credit: Alex Brenner
Despite being called Palmyra, Voutsas and Lesca believe that the piece speaks to many different contexts. A lot of the artists from the Arab Arts Focus at Summerhall, including Syrians and Palestinians, came to see it, they tell me. “The conversations we had afterwards with people from the region, really made us feel that we are able to tell a story like this,” continues Lesca. “People have said it feels very truthful.”
“When we played BE Fest in Birmingham, there was a Taiwanese programmer, and for him, it was something he could completely relate to, but on a different level. For him, it was all about Taiwan and how the country had been invaded. I think that as much as it’s called Palmyra, a lot of people come and see it without knowing anything about Palmyra, and they read their own things into it.”
Voutsas agrees: “How open we leave it helps, too. It gives it that space for people to keep thinking. We decided to call the show Palmyra, and you’re allowed to see that in it, but the feelings that we try and boil it down to are such human feelings. It’s quite base feelings. You can put a lot of different things onto it. We want to leave an audience cogitating, letting the piece just settle afterwards.”
Palmyra by Bertand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas was a Late Recommendation as part of the 2017 Edinburgh Showcase.