Palmyra, Eurohouse, Battersea Arts Centre, London, review: A smashing and haunting double bill

Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas bring their beguiling, unsettling brand of absurdism – a hit at the Edinburgh festival – to London 

Paul Taylor
Monday 16 April 2018 10:52
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Bertrand Lesca in 'Palymyra'
Bertrand Lesca in 'Palymyra'

Bertrand Lesca is tall, handsome and French, confident that his easy charm will work on us. Nasi Voutsas is smaller, Greek and has the large, pitiable eyes of a whipped puppy. There’s mutual aggression built into the top dog/underdog dynamic of almost all double acts but in the work of this pair, brilliant physical clowning escalates into ferocious power games.

Their brand of absurdism beguiles and unsettles simultaneously. They have terrific rapport with the audience, who get roped into their routines (a hammer is given to one punter for safekeeping), but you are, calculatedly, never quite sure of your footing with them. They use humour both to undercut the violence and to ratchet up the tension.

The pieces are superbly choreographed to illustrate how easily show-off coordination can descend into ignominious, retaliatory rage.

The duo’s speciality is shows that take a step back from the news and offer a sort of penetrating, cartoon X-ray of the forces underlying the big issues. But they don’t go in for hard-and-fast allegory. Audiences are free to see them as more general reflections of fiercely unravelling relationships.

London is being treated now to two pieces that have won acclaim in Edinburgh. Both can seen on certain dates, as a short touchdown at Battersea Art Centre is followed by a longer run at Shoreditch Town Hall.

They richly deserve a viewing. Through the intensifying humiliation of the figure played by Voutsas, Eurohouse takes a darkly comic look at how the founding ideals of EU went astray and small countries like Greece wound up being bullied by more powerful members.

Palmyra is named after the ancient Syrian city mutilated by Isis and offers a horribly knockabout diagram of the politics of destruction and their consequences. The pair may begin by gliding around, belly down, on skateboards in a bizarrely beautiful dance to the strains of a Handel aria. But this image of frictionless partnership quickly disintegrates as they proceed to crash into another by accident or design.

Voutsas has smashed Lesca’s plate. So Lesca brings in a tall stepladder and, smugly teasing about his intentions from its top, lets Voutsas’s plate plummet to the floor where it lies in smithereens. Crockery becomes a chronically endangered species in this piece.

The couple have a terrific knack for allowing experimental wackiness to descend into the deeply sinister. Voutsas retaliates by tipping box after box of broken plates over the stage – it’s a brutally farcical sequence and a jagged, bonkers emblem of radicalisation. Similarly, in Eurohouse, Voutsas is obliged to try to vomit up in a bucket the M&M’s that he was just given by Lesca, who now affects to be mystified as to their whereabouts.

They have a great feel for the comic value of music. No matter what song Voutsas requests from the iTunes library, Lesca yet again inflicts on us his favourite – Michel Sardou’s “Comme d’habitude” (the French original of “My Way”). He can’t hear (or pretends he can’t) that there’s been no change.

One of the signal virtues of these pieces – which have a mesmerising rhythm of modified recurrence and are performed with extraordinary physical power and dexterity – is that they resist being pinned down. That’s why they get into your system and continue to haunt you.

A highly gifted enterprise, strongly recommended.

Battersea Arts Centre, until 14 April (bac.org.uk)

Shoreditch Town Hall, 17-28 April (shoreditchtownhall.com)

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