“I don’t get people,” says Nasi Voutsas at the beginning of Palmyra. He is responding with shock and incredulity to a minor piece of senseless vandalism, and, in doing so, makes us feel he’s ‘one of us’ – he shares our non-violent inclinations and values. It is all the more surprising, therefore, when, over the next 55 minutes, we observe Nasi’s descent into a spiral of destruction in this devastating allegory.
Palmyra opens with Nasi and his co-performer (Bertrand Lesca) in apparent harmony. They dance together, and sail across the stage in amusing coordinated skateboard stunts. It is graceful and charming, and elicits appreciative laughter and smiles from the audience. Only in retrospect do we perceive the sinister elements in these apparently benign early scenes. In the dance, Nasi balances on his skateboard while Bert, feet firmly grounded, leads and sometimes propels him at will across the stage. Even the stunts are punctuated by occasional (deliberate?) collisions. Disguised by humour and skill, this is a relationship of dominator and dominated.
As the play develops, the fundamental inequality becomes more apparent as tensions surface and lead to sinister exchanges and increasingly violent confrontations. In a key moment, Bert calmly appropriates both of the chairs on stage and commands Nasi to “Sit down.” He then refuses Nasi’s repeated and increasingly desperate requests for one of the chairs and Nasi ultimately has little choice but to sit on the floor. It is a stark exercise in power and humiliation and we cannot fail to have sympathy for the disempowered Nasi as his frustration grows and erupts into a destructive rage.
Throughout this process, Bert and Nasi each seek to enlist the support of the audience for their respective causes. The house lights are on throughout – we cannot hide in the dark as the conflict and violence escalate. We are courted and appealed to: Bert is charming and articulate, Nasi is raw and desperate. But we (of course) do nothing. Just watch.
And as we watch, we are conscious of the title of the piece and therefore of its allegorical significance. ‘Palmyra’ is a reference to the ancient Syrian city which has been victim to a cycle of occupations and power struggles resulting in the wanton demolition by ISIS of its historic monuments. In fact the relationship depicted on stage could represent any of a number of global conflicts and relationships of imperialism and resistance. However, the title ties it to this specific struggle and in this sense is somewhat distracting. It’s tempting to try to over-literalise what’s happening on stage but this feels unhelpful. The play offers a real and visceral insight into the dynamics of unequal power relationships anywhere, but a more literal reading might, for example, suggest a sympathetic portrayal of the uncomfortable link between Nasi’s rage against his oppressor and ISIS’s Palmyran rampage.
Whatever level you want to take it on, Palmyra is a searing depiction of bullying and its mutually catastrophic consequences. It is a brilliant and compelling piece of theatre: engaging and funny, it is presented with disarming ease and understatement and yet it is disturbing and deeply chilling to the very last moment.
Palmyra featured as part of HOME’s brilliant ORBIT festival. Tickets available at homemcr.org/event/orbit-2017/