Palmyra, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Two men glide around the floor on small wheeled platforms. Like children, belly down on skateboards, they relish the speed and inability to control their paths. There’s a sense of freedom and joy in their movements, but collisions soon turn happiness into hostility. The fights increase in aggression, and the audience is made complicit. No one is innocent here.

When ISIS took over the ruins of the ancient Syrian city Palmyra in 2015, they used the great amphitheatre to stage executions. Though the site was soon rescued, the damage had been done – remains destroyed, graves looted and the amphitheatre stones stained with blood.

Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas use Palmyra’s destruction and reclamation as a starting point for their challenging, interactive work looking at our perception of violence, the opposing forces of a conflict and the information with which we use to come to our moral decisions on an issue (aka, ‘what the media shows us’). It emotionally engages and destabilises; the audience is both powerful and powerless.

Aggressive physical performance and power dynamics are viewed through our Western, leftie lens as Lesca bullies the nearly mute Voutsas. We feel sympathy for Voutsas, but both tell us we aren’t seeing the full picture. When asked to intervene in a threatening scene, we must choose a side. It’s awful, but it forces us to face up to our privileged, removed position away from the front lines.

Whilst it doesn’t go as far as suggestion we are individually responsible for ISIS, our external perceptions of the Syrian conflict and terrorists’ wanton destruction is put under a microscope. The violence and mess in the show triggers a visceral response – revulsion, dismay – and judgment of those committing the acts is inevitable.

With space for the audience to engage with the performers, there’s a threatening volatility in the room. The audience could revolt, or the performers could do something else that’s violent and unpredictable. The tension this creates in addition to the intelligent socio-political commentary that guides viewers’ agency makes this a biting mirror of a show that needs to be seen more widely.

Palmyra runs through 23 August.

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