The following was contributed by Miss604.com guest theatre blogger, Megan Stewart
It was a hard play to watch. â€œNot a fun play,â€ were my thoughts as the lights came up. Yet, there I sat, riveted in my seat, captivated by the suffering of three characters who were failing to come to grips with what theyâ€™d done during war. Touchstone has put on a strong production about conflict’s human collateral.
For Palace of the End, playwright Judith Thompson has written three monologues, each fictional but drawn on recent history and the actions of real people who became significant players in the story of Iraq since the Baathist coup that put Saddam in control in 1979. Torture is at the centre of these three lives; the language is graphic, and the imagery visceral.
I think we all remember Lynndie England. Whether or not her name rings a bell, who could forget the U.S. Army soldier who was photographed giving the thumbs-up at Abu Ghraib prison while naked Iraqis were dog-piled at her feet. The tragedy of this girlâ€™s life, Thompson suggests, is her hick ignorance and naÃ¯ve patriotism. This is an easy trope, considering Lynndie must spell her full name aloudâ€”letter by letterâ€”and was repeatedly fired from a West Virginia Dairy Queen because she couldnâ€™t master serving frozen treats. She hopes her life story will be told through that bastion of American high art, the made-for-TV movie.
But the production and actor Alexa Devine grant depth to this character, revealing a lonely and pregnant girl desperate for validation. Devine brings a needed, well-timed comic touch since the character she plays has not known love or meaningful human contact and is haunted by the tenderness of one manâ€™s neckâ€”an Iraqi terrorist, she must remind herselfâ€” who she walked like a dog, leash in one hand, M16 in the other, and a smile ready for the cameraman.
Next we meet Dr. David Kelly, the U.N. weapons inspector who in 2003 pointed out the inaccuracies in the military intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. Russell Roberts plays this role, balancing bewilderment with softspoken, childlike optimism. The prescient line, â€œPerhaps I knew something I didnâ€™t know I knew,â€ is a direct reference to Donald Rumsfeldâ€™s â€œknown unknowns.â€ A portrait of the past Secretary of Defense hangs on Lynndieâ€™s office wall.
The third monologue takes us back nearly 30 years as Nehrajs Al-Saffarh, the widow of the leader of the Community Party, remembers Saddamâ€™s Baathist coup. She tells us that we cannot understand the terror of life under Saddamâ€”only those who experienced it can testify. Indeed, she says, â€œWe were inside hell.â€ Laara Sadiq is excellently cast as Nehrajs and she brings vigour and dimension to this tale of ultimate loss and shame.
The score (sound design by Brian Linds) is heavy at times and dramatizes the internal states of mind of the characters. Likewise, the lighting (John Webber) points out the charactersâ€™ strife and self-doubt. And the unexpected shock that comes in the playâ€™s closing minutes is excellently executed by the creative team at Thouchstone. The audience was visible shaken, as if further traumatized by a challenging play.
Palace of the End runs this week until Saturday, June 6 at the PAL Theatre in Coal Harbor. Tickets are $16 to $26. Showtime from Tuesday to Saturday is at 8 p.m. with a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday.
Megan Stewart is an independent reporter currently at the UBC graduate school of journalism. She has covered arts across Canada and Australia and also writes for Newslab.ca.