Palace of the End
Daniel Turner reviews Palace of the End
“As someone who strives to watch most of the productions at the theatre, this week the impulse proved profitable.”
The incredible atmosphere the audience were greeted with upon entry into the Assembly Rooms this week drastically confronted one’s connection with ‘the norm.’ As someone who strives to watch most of the productions at the theatre, this week the impulse proved profitable. Judith Thompson’s Palace of the End dramatises some of the most challenging ideas, events and consequences of Iraq, both pre, during and post the ‘War on Terror.’ The tight studio space created on the stage’s apron of the theatre, and the presence of soldiers and a woman in Eastern dress, along with the use of oud-music, all created an engulfing atmosphere which worked well for the play as it developed.
The play forces the audience to be the live-listener to a series of three monologues, each exploring and challenging events regarding Iraq over the past 30 years, including the internal attack on Communism in the 1970s, the Hutton Inquiry of 2003, and the trial of Lynnidie England for abuses to Iraqui prisoners of war in the Abu Ghraib prison. It provides three distinct perspectives on the reality of the war: that of a young American soldier imprisoned for her misconduct at a prison camp in Iraq; a British microbiologist and weapons inspector who exposes the false justifications for war; and an Iraqi mother whose life is destroyed first by Saddam Hussein’s regime and then by the American invasion. Usually starting with England’s monologue, moving onto David Kelly’s and ending with the monologue of the Iraqi woman (inspired by the true story of Nehrjas Al Saffarh, a member of the Communist party of Iraq, who was tortured by Saddam Hussein’s secret police in the 1970s and died when her home was bombed by the Americans in the first Gulf War), this play forces the audience to completely re-evaluate pre-conceived opinion and education on one of the contemporary world’s worst conflicts and to recognize the power of the human soul.
Maintaining a very convincing accent throughout, Clayden described events I assume all audience members could never truly empathize with.
Unlike the script, Usden’s version started with the monologue of the Iraqi woman. Elizabeth Clayden’s monologue demonstrated the hard work demanded by and the difficulties of the performance of this play. Maintaining a very convincing accent throughout, Clayden described events I assume all audience members could never truly empathize with. The uncomfortable closeness of the staging whilst the monologue detailed the torture and abuse of Hussein’s attack on Communism in the 1970s forced you to listen to the reflection of these events. Though her character may have issues with finding the correct English terms or words for certain expressions, the language of this monologue is so succinct that no emotion is left unmoved, and Clayden’s portrayal of this character did not hinder such precise communication. Though perhaps Clayden was not believably in her 50s (as her character is meant to be), this did in no way detract from the sincerity of her speech, acutely expressing the confusion and anger of this victimized mother.
In Usden’s reorganization of the play’s order, the next monologue was that of Lynndie England. When England attempted to discuss the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib she stated: “They were the enemy. I don’t mean to say they deserved what they got but … this is my problem. I can’t think of words.” However, Thompson’s script assigns England words, and Tessa Coates brought life to these words in a manner I did not anticipate. Slightly comical, with de-sexualized expletives and crude jokes, the initial humor of the part was maximized by Coates’ own sense of comedy. However, Coates’ pivot came as she detailed and attempted to justify her action in the photographs of the prisoners. Her naivety, expressed both by her own self-confession of it and also through a solid galvanization with the ignorance of England’s actions, forced the audience to make judgment on these actions, genuinely revealing the confusion and ignorance of a woman trained to believe that an Iraqi prisoner is of no more consequence than the farm animals back home in West Virginia. The frightening emotional variety of this instable character, though with a shaky accent, for me was the most emotionally evocative of the play.
Steffan Griffiths’ delivery of this monologue was more successful in portraying the age and maturity of the two older characters
The final monologue exposed Usden’s great attention to detail in the use of tech, and the painted tree on the back wall, and its roots spreading over the stage. The intrusion of music and the enveloping lighting as Kelly draws closer to death unified the studio space with the space each monologue had inhabited. This, I feel, was integral to Usden’s direction. The re-ordering of the monologues to make these events gradually come closer to home, demonstrating (in Kelly’s death) the manner in which the tables of the Iraq War changed to reveal the un-clean hands of those trying to ‘save’ Iraq from Hussein. Steffan Griffiths’ delivery of this monologue was more successful in portraying the age and maturity of the two older characters, with instable movement and frailty ordering the audience to truly sympathise with the position of this man. Usden’s close work with the physicality of his three actors again shone through here, and Griffiths portrayed the vulnerability and ultimate surrendering of David Kelly very convincingly.
A thoroughly thought provoking play, Usden’s re-working of the script and careful direction truly paid off in communicating the play’s complicated themes and troubling content.