I first saw Bert and Nasi at the end of the world. They were pretty casual about it. They leapt lazily into each other’s arms as they mapped out the last day they ever spend together, wriggled in a headlock as language began to crumble, and tumbled across the floor while they watched the stars splinter one by one.
Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas make work that scuffs the line between dance, theatre and clowning. In a medium that doesn’t last, much of their work is about what endures and what falls apart; friendship, democracy, violence, the planet, their stamina. Nasi plays with his cap as he talks. “Soon we’re going to be too unfit to throw ourselves around in the way we can now.” He and Bert are squashed on a sofa in Warwick, where they’re performing over freshers week. “Sometimes it does feel like, ah man,” he twists his cap around, “can’t we just bottle this up and keep it in some way?”
Since meeting at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015, Bert and Nasi have marked each new year with a new show together. Exhausting and exhilarating to watch, their performances evoke global topics through the breakdown of intimate relationships; the personal and political contained in the interactions of two clowns, in equal turns brutal, funny and sad. They are among a wave of theatremakers currently using elliptical routes to examine international politics, including Sabrina Mahfouz’s A History of Water in the Middle East, Sh!t Theatre Drink Rum With Expats and Lucy Prebble’s A Very Expensive Poison. Their trilogy – Eurohouse, Palmyra and One – deals in competition and one-upmanship, while their fourth, stand-alone show, The End, simultaneously details the end of their friendship and the end of our universe.
Bert just got married. Nasi wore a great suit. Chatting over Skype, they have an ease to them that I recognise from their shows; the way your muscles relax after stretching. Bert holds the phone and they look at each other before they answer. Bert smiles when he’s thinking. Nasi scrunches his forehead.
Their shows are vociferously political. In the style of a playground tiff turned sour, Eurohouse physicalises the complex relationship between EU member countries, focusing in on the Greek economy. Competition turns to bullying. Deals and debts go unpaid. Bert gives Nasi sweets and demands them back after he’s eaten them. Pragmatism fights idealism. Humiliation reigns.
Leaping off this mounting conflict, their second show Palmyra gives a taste of the violence inflicted upon the bombed, ancient Syrian city. Destruction is at the forefront and comedy quickly gives way to tragedy as the floor becomes covered in thousands of shards of crockery. When it seems like it’s getting out of hand – Bert swings a hammer inches away from Nasi’s head – the weapon is given to an audience member for safe keeping. Nasi asks them to take it outside. Bert asks them to give it back to him. It becomes a standoff. The audience member has to decide.
Where they perform Palmyra has a huge impact on how the show – and this moment in particular – is received. “So much of the piece is about viewing conflict from afar and how that feels,” Bert says, “but for people who have experienced conflict directly, you can’t really fool them.” It cartwheels from the act of watching violence to the act of remembering experienced violence. They performed Palmyra to audiences in Belfast and Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo, both cities with extreme neighbour-to-neighbour brutality in their recent history. “As two guys from the UK [Nasi] and France [Bert],” Nasi notes, “you can’t help but be conscious of that. You think, how much are they looking at us and thinking ‘what do you actually know about conflict?’” Bert nods. “They’re fully aware of the game you’re playing,” he pauses, “and of where you get it wrong as well.”
Theirs is a particular kind of violence. Veering between psychological and physical, there is no blood, and combat is twisted in amongst compassionate touch. In The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson makes a case for nuance within cruelty in art. “True moral complexity is […] found by wading into the swamp, getting intimate with discomfort, and developing an appetite for nuance.” Bert and Nasi use their violence as a way to wade into the swamp with us, hand glued to hand, feet squelching all the way down. When I ask how far their work, their words and their simulated violence is a performance and how much themselves, they pirouette on the spot. “60/40?” they venture at first, before Bert expands. “We’re not pretending that it is us. But these are our kind of alter egos, or our clowns [a word they say they originally shied away from] and they are coming from us, what we’re feeling in that moment or what we’re feeling about each other.” Nasi seems to nod and shake his head at the same time – “It’s complicated” – and we slide further into the swamp.
Indecision and uncertainty are core to their work too. In one performance in Northern Ireland, the audience launched a vote to decide what to do with the hammer, with the results split firmly down the middle. “We didn’t even have to talk,” Nasi says with a certain amount of awe. “They were having a debate amongst themselves. It wasn’t our piece anymore, it was theirs.”
Their performances in Sarajevo were somewhat less confident. “Maybe because [Northern Ireland] is a conflict that the UK has been so much a part of,” Nasi suggests, “so it’s closer to home.” Or maybe it was because of language, Bert considers. “I think maybe in Bosnia they didn’t feel that confident to interact with us because we were talking in English. It loses some of that immediacy. You [as an audience member] can’t heckle and say whatever you want. The form – the liveness of the form – when it’s mediated through subtitles, it loses something. It feels prepared.” This aim for the electric feeling of liveness is what charges their shows – they solidify much of their work in front of a live audience – and it is what laces each decision with a metallic tang.
Unlike the rest of the trilogy, One is not directly tied to a particular political movement. Instead, this finale attempts to grapple with the difficulties of dialogue in an increasingly shattered society. “Really at the centre,” Nasi says, “is people’s ability and inability to communicate.”
They didn’t originally intend to make a trilogy. One show just bled into and built off another; while they don’t have a consistent narrative, the three do speak to each other. They’re doing One for the month at Battersea Arts Centre, and on October 19th, they’re going to perform all three, which they’ve never done before. While they’ve only been working together for a few years, already the change in their style is visible. “You feel like you’ve moved on,” Bert concedes. “Your vocabulary is more developed.” Some of the physical comedy gags they tested out in Eurohouse feel markedly different from the tone they’re comfortable in for One or The End. Nasi shifts on the sofa. “It feels like performing a younger, more naive version of ourselves.”
The most recent of all their work, The End, is a complete u-turn from the sharp brutality of the trilogy. One of the most emotionally literate plays I have ever seen, it radiates tenderness. “I would like to understand more about compassion,” Nelson writes, “and I am gambling that one way of doing so is to get to know its enemies.” Bert and Nasi loop a tightrope between the poles of kindness and cruelty, and leap between the two. Where there is meanness in The End, it stems first from playfulness, and later desperation; as their diminishing time is clarified, their touch becomes tougher. By gifting themselves hindsight, they are also burdened with knowledge of future loss. When they perform, part of the resistance comes from their closeness; it as if they want to glue themselves together to prevent the inevitable separation.
I remind them of an interview in WhatsOnStage, where they said they started to enjoy the experience of pushing each other and being horrible to each other in their shows. “When we said that,” Nasi says slowly, “we’d been working with each other for too long. Palmyra’s a nasty show, and when we perform it for long stints at a time, it takes its toll on us. It was very easy to fall back into that, just being nasty to each other. In a weird way, we know it very well. We know how to play in that moment.” He fiddles with his beard. “There’s always the attempt to push through that to get to something more tender and more loving. But that was quite difficult, to get ourselves out of that [routine].” Bert agrees. “There’s a moment [in One] where Nasi says ‘I’m tired of all this, I’m tired of you.’ He looks at me and says, ‘You look tired.’ Then at the audience, ‘and you look tired.’ What else can we do to one another? There has to be something else. I think we attempt to find it in One, and then eventually [find it in] The End.” He scratches his arm and looks at Nasi. “Creating The End, we’ve had to really talk to one another in ways I feel I rarely talk to another male friend.”
The conclusions they outline for themselves and their relationship in The End aren’t epic or heroic. They don’t fall out, just out of touch. They don’t really fight, just drift. Even when planets implode, they do so quietly. “A lot of people said you guys are so pessimistic,” Bert says. But they weren’t looking to create a utopia. “It’s fears that we had, that this is what could happen. It’s what to avoid.” In The End, Bert and Nasi bring up a projection of Google Earth and zoom out. The outside of the theatre we’re sitting in quickly disappears and melds into the green of the land, which in turn gives way to the blue of the sea. They rock on the balls of their feet and wait for the rest of their lives to happen. Bert looks up, above the camera lens. “I think knowing those fears helps think of better endings.”