Palmyra is the second offering from FellSwoop Theatre (Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas). Their debut Eurohouse was a playful playground dissection of Greece’s place in the Eurozone crisis that escalated from dance routines and squabbles over M&Ms into full hostility. Palmyra utterly lobotomises any pretence of cooperation in Lesca and Voutsas’s collaboration – this is a far more vicious piece, that eclipses any hope that violently opposed human beings can learn to cooperate. This is theatre as a metaphor for war, using clowning to comment on the nature of revenge and cyclical violence.
FellSwoop’s understated style is all their own. Events of the most petty, minuscule scale take on an operatic significance – with the play’s title hanging over its immature antics, a smashed plate can stand for a destroyed city. Cultural differences between French Lesca and Greek Voutsas are played upon, as both attempt to exploit the audience’s prejudices in an escalating war for control of the piece.
Whilst perhaps not as nuanced in tone as Eurohouse, and unrelenting in its slow twist of tension between its performers, the stakes in Palmyra are raised considerably. The potential for actual violence bubbles barely below the surface of the piece. Whilst these may be clowns performing violent slapstick on wheely boards, their bodies can be bruised and broken – which Lesca reminds us in a lecture on health and safety after Voutsas comes dangerously close to clubbing him with a hammer.
This hammer accumulates significance – placed in the hands of an unwilling audience member (because, as Lesca suggests, surely the person who least wants this power is the person who should be given it – a subtle comment on responsibility and intervention) it becomes the centrepiece of a tense standoff. That audience member is given a choice – whether to place the hammer in the hands of the underdog Voutsas, positioned by Lesca as a primitive brute, or to remove it from the space and into the hands of Summerhall staff. Somehow this succeeds in feeling like a genuine moral dilemma. Their choice – to intervene, and in doing so choose a side – will have a lasting legacy. Indeed, as the play closes to Voutsas spinning in a pool of broken china, gaining violent momentum to the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”, we are left with a haunting impression of the legacy of the sides we choose.