Thompson's Palace of the End

Friday, February 8, 2008


Written by Josh Dehaas

Palace of the End, the new play by University of Guelph professor and playwright Judith Thompson asks the audience to bear witness to some of the real lives affected by the death and destruction that has plagued Iraq for the last half-century. While we’ve all seen the statistics of dead soldiers, the photos of Iraqi’s affected by the bombings, the speeches given by experts who made their case for war, few of us have actually been able fathom the atrocities which have created such a dire situation. In a very simple way, Thompson is able to add a more immediate emotional component to our awareness of the situation.

She bases three monologues on three different real lives that were forever ruined by Saddam Hussein and the War in Iraq. These three semi-fictional characters reveal their tortures to us with such passion and detail that we feel compelled to listen as if it was a close friend or an old neighbour telling us their troubles. Thompson’s play suggests that without this emotional component, our knowledge of the death, the torture and the sacrifices made in Iraq would forever be in vain.

The play opens with an intense twenty-something West Virginian soldier (Maev Beaty) stamping paperwork while she tells the story of how she got knocked up in Abu Ghraib Prison by a man who became her co-torturer. This is clearly based on Lynndie England the US Army reservist who was sentenced to three years prison for conspiracy, maltreating detainees and committing an indecent act. Despite her age, she’s facing prison those notorious photos which sickened the world by revealing the inhumane treatment of Iraqi prisoners of war by a few American soldiers. More concerned with the ugly pictures of herself that had surfaced on the internet she reveals that she still doesn’t understand the gravity of her individual choices and the evil she has committed. Thompson suggests that because she grew up in a society where she was dominated and abused by those in power, she only knew how to abuse other people when suddenly given power herself. By the end of her monologue, the sound of the stamp hitting each document resembles the automatic weapons of war, adding to the hellish atmosphere to which she’s been confined.

This character is a stereotypical American hick, causing some credibility to be lost, but Beaty’s performance is nonetheless spectacular. We’re able to see the vilified solider as entirely human and yet still capable of extraordinary evil. We sympathize with the girl worked at Dairy Queen one day and wielded power over human beings the next.

The second monologue is an autobiographical account given by David Kelly (Julian Richings) the biological weapons expert who committed suicide after he blew the whistle on the British government’s orders to “sex up” its case for going to war. This character reveals that having originally suppressed his doubts about the truth, he felt that he had done the right thing by going to the BBC and confessing his complicity. News reports of Kelly’s death suggest he was hounded into depression and then suicide. Thompson suggests that his death was atonement for the sin he committed by not standing up and saying what he truly believed prior to the invasion. Some might see this as suggesting that it is not too late to criticize the West’s approach to the instability and dictatorship in Iraq. His suicide, of course, will be remembered and publicized far more than the minor secrets he revealed to the BBC. Thompson’s play continues this publicity while honouring his death.

The third monologue is more shocking and arguably more impactful than the other two. What has often been missing from debate on the Iraq war is an illustration of the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein against Iraqis that formed part of the justification for attempting to transplant Western democracy. Perhaps it is easier for us to understand the inevitable damage of the U.S. invasion than to understand the potential for future evil which Saddam’s regime demonstrated would continue indefinitely. After the first two monologues, we are forced to confront the fact that the U.S. invasion in 2001 might have been a mistake. The third monologue offers insight into the deep evils of allowing Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship to continue unchecked. Placed in any other order, the monologues would not have had such a profound effect.

The third monologue is based on Nehrjas al-Saffarh (Arsinée Khanjian) who was a communist punished for her resistance against the Baathists in the 1980s. She recounts unbearable torture which she and her entire family endured at Saddam’s torture center - the Palace of the End. Like the Iraqi POWs, she and her family were treated as if they were not even human. The description of the torture is powerfully written and delivered with unchecked emotion. Kanijan (best known for her role in Egoyan’s Ararat) brings star-power to the show and yet does not outshine Beaty or Richings.

Palace of the End reminds the audience that every day people like you of me are capable of committing evil beyond anything that most Canadians are even capable of understanding. What ties the three characters together is that they have been both guilty and innocent in the war. They were all capable of evil mistakes and all victims of evil. But all three of them are able to offer us hope. Palace of the End suggests that the most important thing for us to keep in mind when confronting evil is that we must always remember to bear witness to the past.

Thompson was recently nominated for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for Palace of the End, a prestigious award which recognizes work by a female playwright each year and is accompanied by a $20,000 award.
Tickets start at $20 and the intimate size of the theatre means that even the cheapest tickets allow you to become fully engaged with the production. Palace of the End is playing at the Berkeley theatre in Toronto’s distillery district until February 23rd.

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