Palace of the End, Judith Thompson’s most recent play, is not only her most political work, it is also her best. As most auditioning actors in this country have discovered, Thompson’s greatest strength has always been her monologues, and in this piece, she uses that strength to its full advantage. In fact, she dispenses with character interaction altogether and breaks her show into three long monologues, each spoken by someone who has been greatly affected by the political situation in Iraq from Saddam’s rise to power to the present. Interestingly, while Thompson has created the text for the show, she has not created fictional characters. Though they are not credited as such in the program, the following becomes clear: Maev Beaty’s “American Soldier” is none other than Abu Ghraib’s favourite dishonourable dischargee, Private Lynndie England; Julian Richings’ “British Microbiologist and Weapons Inspector” is WMD whistle-blower and Thom Yorke muse David Kelly; Arsinée Khanjian’s “Iraqi Mother” is the less notorious Nehrjas al-Saffarh, a woman who was tortured along with her children during Saddam’s reign and died in the first Gulf War.
David Storch directs the piece with a simple elegance that is complemented by Teresa Przybylski’s attractive set design, which looks a bit like Frank Gehry’s backyard. And the cast is fabulous. In the first monologue, “My Pyramids,” Maev Beaty brings real pathos to a woman who has been internationally vilified. Thompson is not being a Lynndie apologist, but she makes a very convincing case for how the real responsibility for what happened in Abu Ghraib lies with the US military and American culture in general rather than any one individual. In the second monologue, “Harrowdown Hill,” Julian Richings successfully brings life to the dying Kelly and comprehension to a figure who has remained something of an enigma in popular culture. But it is the final monologue, “Instruments of Yearning,” that will really have you reaching for the hankies. Arsinée Khanjian (perhaps best known for her work acting in her husband, Atom Egoyan’s, films) is a revelation as Nehrjas, easily the most relatable and sympathetic character in the show, and also the one who has been through the most. It’s very difficult to listen to her describe how her children were tortured before her eyes, but it’s also one of the most honest and powerful moments you’re likely to see on stage this year.
Palace of the End‘s style and subject matter are somewhat reminiscent of the “Homebody” section of Kushner’s Afghanistan-focused Homebody/Kabul, but Thompson has written the better play. This is vital, relevant, important theatre. Go see it.
Palace of the End runs at the Berkeley Street Theatre until February 23.