Judith Thompson’s Palace of the End is a carefully crafted set of three monologues that revolve upon the trauma and tragedy of the Iraq War. The three distinct monologues, each a highly sophisticated exploration of personal investment, values and moral conflict, offers a detailed and graphic portrayal of what is often unheard and unseen in the media frenzy that surrounds such events.
In the opening monologue, Hannah Norris plays A Soldier and clearly establishes the larger context of the Iraq war and the relationship between the American solders and the ‘Raquis’; the latter according to this soldier who were treated as no less than animals in the hands of their captors. Norris is clearly a talented performer and delivers her side of the story with power and conviction; yet stays almost aggressively singular in this performance, creating a somewhat limited version of events that are intended to shock an audience. The American accent is also excessively brash and while successful in portraying the arrogance and misguided actions of those who possessed power over others, it failed to interrogate the larger question of ultimately whose power is the catalyst for these atrocities and who will take responsibility.
Robert Meldrum’s rendition of David Kelly follows in Harrowdown Hill and because of Thompson’s rich text and Meldrum’s almost flawless execution, this is the most powerful monologue of the three. Combining reflective contemplation at the events that have led up to this moment upon which he must encounter death, complete bafflement at the depth to which human nature can sink and the cynical commentary of how truth and lies can be twisted into a labyrinth of deceit; Meldrum’s performance is poignant and genuine and effortlessly sets up the triptych for the final monologue.
In the third and final monologue, Eugenia Fragos plays an Iraqi mother Nehrjas Al Saffrah giving a heart-wrenching rendition of the sufferings her family encountered at the hands of Saddam and his henchmen in Instruments of Yearning. Her story is a mixture of conversation and confession and captured the lasting tenderness of a woman who has suffered unmentionable horrors and in the simplest prose conveys those details to her listeners. A few technical issues with accent and over enunciation of certain Arabic maxims made the speech occasionally somewhat stilted and contrived; yet overall Fragos did manage to create a compelling end to the set of three monologues.
Daniel Clarke’s extraordinary lightness of touch in directing this very emotionally heavy piece (the performance runs for 100 minutes with no interval) is beautifully complemented by the intimate set design and evocative light and soundscapes. Eugyeene Teh’s simple but thoughtful set enables three performers to remain on stage for the entire performance, as witnesses and observers of the action that is unfolding; involved yet simultaneously distant in the drama in which they are entrenched. Similarly, Rob Sowinski and Russell Goldsmith’s lighting and sound designs are perfectly in sync and create natural segues highlighting the key shifts within each monologue as well as between the monologues themselves.
With an increasing emphasis on human rights and social justice issues the latest productions to be showcased at Theatre Works is reflective of an increasing cultural awareness of how our society responds to key events, both those that are current and those that have ongoing consequences. The show closes this weekend and for any audience member seeking to engage with theatre in its most aesthetic and confronting evocation this is a show not to be missed.