“Another play about Iraq?” Not a good reaction to reviewing Judith Thompson’s Palace of the End perhaps, but my initial reaction in all honesty, particularly on hearing the play consists of three monologues, voiced respectively by a disgraced American soldier, a UN weapons inspector and an Iraqi woman pursued by Saddam Hussein’s secret police. Haven’t we heard it before?
But let me say this: nothing about Thompson’s play is ‘same old.’ Thanks to a remarkable script and a powerhouse of performances by Kellie Bright, Robert Demeger and Eve Polycarpou, I left the Traverse with a wholly new perspective on this manmade mess of a war and not a trace of the media-induced apathy I took in with me.
Of course, the material is familiar. Bright’s smiling Lynndie England steps up first, telling tales on Abu Ghraib and googling her own name to read the latest torrent of abuse spewed at her. “You must be liberals,” she deadpans at her detractors. Demeger follows as David Kelly, sitting in the undergrowth of Harrowdown Hill where hours later his body will be discovered by police. Last comes Nehrjas Al Saffarh , who alone has experienced the palace of the play’s title – Hussein’s torture facility – and is left with nothing but tea and poetry to comfort her grief.
From unspeakable ugliness, Thompson has spun her own poetry in this play, joining the dots between these disparate figures to emphasise the ultimate futility of the Middle Eastern conflict. Demeger, in particular, is heart-breaking as he explains in quiet, deliberate fashion what has led him to these woods and asks us to bear witness to his death. Images repeat themselves: both David and Lynndie refer to worlds through the looking glass. And when she and Nehrjas end their speeches with the same gesture of imagined flight, it’s clear what unites them all is the desire to be free again.