The play begins with a brief introduction. We are shown the Jeff Wall’s 1978 photograph ‘The Destroyed Room’, which shows a room inexplicably vandalised and torn apart. We are told that a painting, ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’, which depicts a king who watches on as his possessions are destroyed and his concubines are brutally murdered, in turn inspired this. Then the actors enter, into what seems to be a very nice flat (designed by Kai Fischer), complete with sofas, a fridge full of snacks, bottles of wine and so on – also two cameramen, who film the ensuing conversation closely, projecting the actors faces onto a large screen at the back of the stage.
They begin chatting, inspired by a random question about the photograph, which on this particular night is about whether it would be better to be OCD clean and tidy or the complete opposite. The conversation begins pretty congenially with the actors discussing their own cleanliness or lack thereof, before quickly moving onto politics and the state of the world today. It feels like many conversations you will have had yourself: isn’t everything awful at the moment? How about putting flags on your Facebook profile? Is it acceptable to show solidarity with France but not, say Turkey or Iraq? As the three actors tuck into some wine, they start to talk over each other, disagreeing more passionately and revealing more about their voyeuristic online habits. One woman watches a video of a person being swept away by a tsunami on repeat and seems to find it quite calming. A man watches videos of prisoners being beheaded and burnt alive, gruesomely fascinated.
The central question of the play is about our relationship with distressing images. If we watch videos of torture and death repetitively, is that disturbing? Or does it show a respect for the victims, a willingness to acknowledge their suffering? If so, what does it say about us if we turn away? Should we be able to just switch it off and decide when enough is enough, or is that unfair?
As the conversation presses on, the conversation becomes heated; the actors become defensive, the camera starts to blur, the floor of the stage fills with water. Someone is accused of responding emotionally, claiming all the empathy for themselves, after a personal disclosure. Someone else says that we are the lucky ones and we should protect that – “we can’t build a life raft for everyone.” Then it’s too much. Offended and upset now, the actors leave the stage and it floods with water, the curtains rip and the room is destroyed.
Director Matthew Lenton pins down and exposes the contradictions of our position of luxury within the world. We talk and talk and nothing changes. We watch videos and nothing changes. The world is falling apart and we feel guilty but when we’ve had enough, we just shut it off and go get some more wine. Though powerful in its message and deeply affecting, The Destroyed Room doesn’t change anything either. It plunges its audience into a state of utter despair with no hope of relief – and for what? As the show draws to a close we are shown painfully long videos of suffering refugee families in the water, some of whom seem to be drowning. It was all I could do to stay inside the theatre, and though yes, this harrowing feeling does demonstrate Lenton’s central question incredibly well, this is not an enjoyable way to spend 75 minutes and offers no solution.