Theatre show exploring conflict and violence will resonate powerfully in Belfast

Named after the Syrian city, the acclaimed Palmyra promises to hit close to home for anywhere with its own turbulent history

As far back as the bronze age, the site of a Syrian city now known as Palmyra was a small lush oasis with underground water and a large river bed, built and settled upon by Arameans, Arabs and Jews.

But as recently as three years ago, a city that once 'boasted some of the best preserved ruins of antiquity' (Kareem Shaheen, writing in 2017) was captured by ISIS.

Two years later, many artefacts were sabotaged, and both a tetrapylon and part of a Roman theatre were destroyed.

If such artefacts are damaged, let alone destroyed – be they buildings, monuments or towers – an indelible blow is struck to the heart of a community and country which had symbols and monuments to be proud of as people and artists.

All of this was the starting point for Palmyra, devised in Edinburgh in 2017 by Bertrand (Bert) Lesca and Nasi Voutsas. Described as 'weird, wonderful and strangely stressful' by The Stage, the award-winning show has already enjoyed immense critical acclaim and success at the Edinburgh Fringe and on a Spanish tour. It even reached No. 3 in Lyn Gardner’s Top 10 theatrical picks of 2017 for The Guardian.

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Now it's touring the UK and in early May, a local audience will get to experience it for the first time as Lesca and Voutsas bring Palmyra to the MAC in Belfast. 

Lesca, from Marseille, and Voutsas, from London – also known as Bert and Nasi - have been making theatre together for just under two years, and Palmyra is their second work following 2016's equally politically charged Eurohouse, which dealt with the EU and the Greek economic crisis.

'A trend in our work seems to be that it's quite immediate, in tune with the zeitgeist', Voutsas admits. 'That’s not necessarily intentional, though. It just seems to happen.'

Eurohouse had been really difficult to decipher for Lesca and Voutsas, with every fact that they had to research threatening to bog them down and overwhelm rather than inspire them to create art. Nonetheless, they found a way of telling their story, which left them 'more equipped' when it came to Palmyra.

'What you'll see when watching Palmyra on stage was kind of born from the images of destruction that came from the Syrian city, all of which caught plenty press attention in the West', says Voutsas. 'The attack on the ruins felt like a punch in the gut for so many people, because they meant so much to the country. They're part of the regional identity.

'And what struck us about it was exactly how much weight it carried in our society, and why its impact was so strong when juxtaposed with casualties you hear of every day.'

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But audiences will soon find there is much more to the show than the ruins, or even the city itself. This is a production that goes beyond Palmyra alone and becomes something more psychological, personal even.

'Although Palmyra was our starting point, Palmyra is not so much about Palmyra as it is about conflict', says Voutsas. 'Me and Bert use our on-stage relationship to explore topics like conflict and revenge politics, which Belfast, like many other places worldwide, is no stranger to.

'We actually never mention Palmyra once. Obviously, there's an image inspired by the region, the ruins, and the conflict there. But you never hear the name. It's all about mine and Bert’s relationship on stage, and what we bring to it as performers.'

Because of its human nature, Palmyra has resonated strongly with all walks of life. 'We recently performed in Brazil, where the political climate is extremely and especially turbulent. It is relevant there in a way that it wouldn't be to Belfast. But I find that fascinating, because when you contrast that with where we started our research, in the Middle East, you see these things happening all around the world, and how it brings out emotions.'

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Emotions which threaten to come to a literal hammerhead at one particular point in the show, where an audience member is given a mallet. A mallet with which Lesca and Voutsas have threatened each other onstage, leaving the audience conflicted about who to trust. Palmyra also features plate-smashing, dancing and fighting – an eclectic and wholly intriguing concoction. How thin the line between art and violence can be; something Lesca, and Voutsas, were clearly keen to explore.

'One can be violent in many ways, and sometimes there can be an artistic way of portraying this violence. Palmyra kind of explores that. It delves into these blatant acts of ferocity, like the very loud, in-your-face intensity of brandishing a hammer in someone's face. But there's also different types of violence every day that are harder to uncover. We're trying to boil it down to what the fundamentals of conflict are.'

Fundamentals that, to a certain degree, the citizens of Belfast may relate to all too well – a city that Voutsas is 'really looking forward' to experiencing, as much as theatre lovers are surely looking forward to seeing him, and Lesca, perform Palmyra.

Palmyra comes to the MAC on May 5, part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. For more information and ticket booking, visit https://themaclive.com/event/palmyra or contact the Box Office on 028 9023 5053.