Palace of the End

12 Jul

Epic Theatre presented a powerful and well-written production of Judith Thompson’s Palace of the End, directed by Danielle Topol (see previous post). I highly recommend it. It consists of three separate monologues by persons involved in war in Iraq– Lynndie England (of Abu Ghraib notoriety); David Kelly, the British weapons inspector who suicided; Nehrjas Al Saffarh, “a leading member of Iraq’s Communist Party whose family experience unimaginable suffering during the Baathist coup that led to Saddam Hussein’s rise to power” (citation from Epic Theatre’s website). The writing is powerful and imaginative and only very occasionally dips to a predictable sentimentality. And the material– gods.

This play was great because it delved into the unknown of the known. We have access to knowing the horrors perpetrated in Iraq (I say “access to” rather than “know” because most of us won’t take them in; it might require action–a point very sharply made in the monologue given Kelly’s character). But Thompson’s strategy in the writing is to take public figures (England, Kelly, Al Saffarh) and to invent/ imagine their inner lives. These are not documentary ciphers but a playwright’s imagination of their inner worlds–a creative response to the 4 am haunting question of “how could human beings do this to one another”? The fact that the writer (and production) takes this question seriously, rather than rhetorically as a vehicle to righteous dismissal of evil acts, is what gives the play its disturbing power. Here, good and evil are as braided as the strands of DNA.

In the Lynndie England character, Thompson astutely marks the cultural continuity of the violence and misogyny that extends logically from (not only, but markedly) impoverished lives in the US, to the abuses of Abu Ghraib. (Susan Sontag also wrote blisteringly about this in the New Yorker 2 years ago: the extremely violent U.S. culture that makes the Abu Ghraib excesses part of a pattern, rather than the aberration the Right would have us believe. In particular Sontag points out the continuity between terrible images of lynchings, with the perpetrators smiling beside their victims at picnics, and the smiling “thumbs-up” image of Lynndie England beside the abject, naked male prisoners of Abu Ghraib).

Danielle Topol’s direction does what you most hope for: it serves the play. It’s economically and clearly directed; the stage setting gives each character their space (an office desk, a dream-version forest, sketched by plates of glass with grass woven through; an ornate Iraqi tea table. ) The three characters remain on stage through the consecutive monologues, creating a visual connection between these very different stories. The focus is on the nuanced and convincing performances.

For me the most beautiful stage moment of the play came at the very end, after Nehrjas’ monologue ended (with the ghosts thick around Iraq, watching– a moment of witness that implicated us all in the watching). The lights rose over each of the three isolated settings, for the first time–and in a breath, a shiver, a moment of dawning horror in England’s eyes, the three “felt” one another’s presence.

We need more work like this on stage, not for its testimonials or “CNN-theatre” as a young man remarked to me after the show– but for the courage to enter “facts” imaginatively and to invite an audience to witness the breath on the back of our necks of the dead. We already have testimony and journalism; what theatre can do instead is to enter the unknown side of the known, and take us there too.

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One Response to “Palace of the End”

  1. AlexM August 15, 2008 at 6:09 am #

    Your blog is interesting!

    Keep up the good work!

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