All The Men and Women Merely Players

My plans for last night were chiefly feeling very sorry for myself about my period pains, watching something escapist on Netflix, and eating a lot. I was building up to this exciting evening of self-pity, by wandering around wearing a dress that looked like a dirty nightie (not dirty in the fun way, just unwashed and frumpy), and clutching my lower abdomen like an 8 months pregnant woman. I left the bookshop and spotted a friend from university who I hadn’t seen in a long time. You know the feeling: you’re simultaneously pleased to see an old friend, but also wishing you hadn’t bumped into one when you were dressed like an escapee from a Victorian lunatic asylum. If you recognise that feeling, you may also know the one when you talk to someone who is much cooler and more confident than you, and you either find it hard to speak at all, or talk a lot of utter rubbish. The old friend said he was performing a play called Palmyra. Inside I thought, ooh that sounds serious, interesting and important thing to be doing a play about, but I would worry it would go over my head. Out loud I squeaked, “Oh - FUN. I’ll come and see it.” I staggered off both regretting the night of Netflix and chocolate that would never be and having said “Oh – FUN” about the title Palmyra.

Later, I was very glad that I chose to go to the theatre. Palmyra is a must-see show: it was incredibly intelligent, but utterly simple. While the ideas were deep and complex, there was no way this could go over anyone’s head. Unexpectedly, there were moments of fun. The performance began with physical comedy, plate smashing, and a lot of silliness. Rather quickly, this playful atmosphere became uncomfortably intense, as the point scoring between the two performers – who had broken whose plate first? – began to spill out into something beyond play (in more than one sense of the word). One performer turned to the audience, using his easy charm to develop a relationship with us, appealing to us to condemn the other’s behavior. As an audience member the feeling was strange, I felt compelled, by both his charm, and the traditional relationship between an audience and a performer, to give the answer he was inviting. As soon as I had spoken, though, I felt trapped and coerced. The games being played on stage became games of humiliation, and while the audience stayed silent we felt complicit in this humiliation (it was interesting to find out that not all audiences have silently endured this stressful scene). As one performer condemned his fellow as uncultured, not like us, unreasonable, his fellow became more humiliated, enraged, and of course – unreasonable, and unlike us, the stationary audience. Over all of this the title Palmyra cast its uncomfortable light. These simple transactions of chairs, plates, brooms, etc, became shifting metaphors for various aspects of the conflict in Syria, the role of the international community, and that of ourselves in relation to the conflict. Palmyra confronted us with some uncomfortable truths, but there was no clear allegory, they didn’t pretend to have the answers. Rather they made us complicate our narratives. The show was both emotionally and intellectually provocative through this ambiguity. Most powerfully, by destabilizing the traditional relationship between actors and audience, Palmyra challenged us to think about our own roles within the state and the world. Can we really see ourselves as an audience to the actors involved in Syria, or in any other world affairs? Is that really enough? I won’t say anymore, as I don’t want to give to much away about this show.  It is so thought provoking, viscerally compelling, and important, that I hope you can experience it for yourself. Check out their website for future performances. 

Seeing this show really renewed my belief in the power of theatre (well, it didn’t cure my period pains, so it’s good that something came out of it). When you read or watch the news the world today feels unstable and frightening, it is so tempting to turn to art, whether that’s Netflix, Shakespeare, fashion, or anything else, as an escape. This play reminded me that all these things can be something through which we think about the world, seek to understand it better, or try to change it. An image that fascinated Shakespeare, among other renaissance writers, was that of the world as a stage. It pops up in Hamlet, in As You Like It, and in Macbeth, to name a few. Often the image seems like an expression of the futility of life. Though I'm assured he's a comic character and his name might be a toilet gag, and that there are hidden sex jokes in this speech, to me, Jaques' speech seems either bitter or hopeless rather than funny: 
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

He goes on to enumerate the seven ages of man, that is all the parts a man will play in his life. This story of a man suggests his life is inevitable, and that his choices will make no difference as his entrance and exit is already written. Similarly, Macbeth, who, to be fair, has really messed up by this point, decides that his life is meaningless. 
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.
 Macbeth believes that his life, "full of sound and fury" as it was, will signify "nothing". I think the obvious point should be made here: Macbeth has killed a lot of people, or been responsible for their deaths, so talking short to medium term, his life has made a pretty big impact. Of course I'm being facetious - Macbeth is talking in cosmic, or perhaps religious terms (the Predestination debate is relevant here), and in the grand scheme of things a single human life really is no more than a "brief candle". Despite this, our actions do have an effect on the world as we are part of a network of millions upon millions of brief candles. The idea that the world is a stage, suggests it is a fixed thing that remains changeless as actors come and go, we know that isn't true. We impact not only each others lives, through action or inaction, but also the world around us, therefore impacting future generations to come. The position Macbeth takes, though beautifully expressed, is deeply solipsistic and selfish. Interestingly, though, in all these images we - people - are described as players. Jaques says "all the men and women" are players, not just kings like Macbeth. Too often we think of ourselves, not as players, but as audience, powerlessly watching action unfold before our eyes, on the countless little smart phones screens through which we watch the world. Yes, our lives are brief candles, but we can make and impact, so we should remember that we're all players too, and make those brief candles count.

Photograph by Penny Mayes, Wikicommons


Popular Posts