The Guardian / Lyn Gardner

The woman beside me in the audience has been entrusted with a hammer. From the stage Bertrand Lesca is demanding she hands it over to him. At the back of the stage Nasi Voutsas is imploring her not to do so, his eyes large and frightened like a whipped animal. The atmosphere in the theatre is tense and the anxiety rises as Lesca brings in a third party, Oscar, and asks the woman to give the hammer to him. “But I don’t know Oscar,” says the woman firmly, standing her ground and refusing to pass it over.

It’s one of several stunning standoffs in this latest piece by the duo who brought us Eurohouse, a brilliant two-hander that sorrowfully wondered how the founding ideals of the EU have crumbled to the point that Europe’s larger and more economically prosperous states can bully the poorer ones.

Eurohouse took the form of a playground tiff turned nasty. Palmyra – which is named after the ancient Syrian city that has changed hands several times during the war – amplifies the viciousness, demonstrating how quickly conflict can escalate. Faster than it takes Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong to sing Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.

At the start of Palmyra, Lesca and Voutsas lark around on skateboards occasionally crashing into each other in a manner that is ambiguous – playful or perhaps deliberate. By the end, the stage is a spectacle of destruction covered in thousands of pieces of smashed crockery. It takes less than an hour to get from the comic to the tragic, the playful to the punishing.

This is a rewarding show to watch, not least because the duo use the physical differences between them – one tall, one small – to brilliant comic effect. They are superb clowns, but out of the clowning wells something much darker about power, ego and conflict. This can be read as a fable about the war in Syria and the west’s inability to intervene, but it is broad enough to be received as a show about the breakdown of any relationship and how quickly emotions get out of control, positions harden and the crockery starts to be thrown. You start by laughing and by the end you watch appalled and fascinated by our capacity to inflict cruelty and violence on each other.