This is a show about Palmyra. The devastated ancient temple that was taken by Isis, then ceremoniously recaptured by the Russians, having been turned to rubble. It’s about the big complex problem of cultural destruction. It’s about terrorism and geopolitics. It’s about the world we live in now and the past year and symbolic importance and aggression and gaslighting and blame.
So, how do you show that?
Two blokes smashing plates and being horrible to each other.
I think the awe at the heart of the show – which I think has real integrity at its heart – is the fact that the performers claim Palmyra as a starting point and end up performing this show. As with so much of this sort of work, the joy is in having faith that these people are serious and thoughtful, and trying to figure out how they ended up doing this with their time.
One performer smashes a plate, then says he didn’t know how it happened. One performer shoves a box towards the other one, the other retaliates. It escalates like that. There aren’t any big reveals. There aren’t any moments of payoff. Beethoven (??) occasionally plays, one of them is more cultured and charmingly French than the other and uses that to mock the other, but you never really get anywhere. There isn’t a point to be had.
One could just as easily walk out thinking it was a terrible clown show as an important political work.
But I think it’s exactly both those things. It reconstructs how one does documentary, how one explores an event, how theatre engages with the big world, by placing the world within the room and then ignoring the weight of every gesture. When at the end, one performer is left to clean up the mess they both and neither of them made, my heart felt the sort of visceral pang of emotion that only comes about when you least expect it: contemplating that the events had some wider significance was too hard to bear but to imagine I’d just wasted an hour watching two blokes just mess about was a deadening unpleasantness. You are left with your own choice: confront a disappointment at the locus of the real or the theatrical.
I worry that the show doesn’t do very much. It’s outcome is very head not heart in the end – or at least it was for me, but that really might just be because I was aware I needed to formulate something to say – but ultimately I would take this, huge broken piles of this, in place of all the po-faced documentary theatre that this year has to offer.
Palmyra is on at Summerhall until the end of the month.