It’s just over 10 years since the Iraq War was launched in March 2003, and three images of the conflict are still stuck in my mind: George W. Bush gleeful and Cheshire Cat-like announcing “Mission Accomplished”; the cold-blooded butchering of journalists and civilians executed and filmed by a hovering drone, and the bone-chilling pictures of prisoners being humiliated, tortured and killed at Abu Graib.
It is widely agreed that this execrable war, fought for the dubious whims of a moronic president allied to a piss-weak group of fawning prime-ministers and other sycophants, was a disaster. Not only did it succeed in taking hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi lives, it also virtually bankrupted the United States. These terrible results will no doubt reverberate long into the future.
How will history remember this fiasco? Canadian Judith Thompson’s astonishing play, Palace of the End, which has its Australian premiere at TheatreWorks in St Kilda June 5-16, gives us a clue.
I knew this performance was going to be either brilliant or a dud when we were asked to enter the theatre “one-by-one”, stepping on grey blocks through a long dark tunnel to take our seats passing through billowing black net curtains. Despite my initial scepticism, I found Eugyeene Teh’s design an eerie yet rather beautiful conceit, perfect for creating the dream-like ambiance for the true nightmare stories we were about to hear. The first “story” is, in fact, not part of the play at all, for as we wait we hear Iraqi music and the soothing tones of Colin Powell arguing his case for war at the United Nations using made-up and soon to be discredited “evidence”.
The play consists of three monologues from wildly diverse perspectives. The first is My Pyramids, inspired by the media circus around Lynndie England, a heavily pregnant US soldier convicted of abusing detainees at Baghdad’s Ghraib prison. Hannah Norris is totally believable as England, right down to the West Virginian accent, displaying all the ignorant cruelty of a red neck given the chance to inflict her power over weaker others. I found myself repelled by the ugliness of her actions but sympathetic as her own experience of childhood abuse and cruelty is obvious.
The second monologue is Harrowdown Hill, set around the death of British weapons inspector David Kelly, who allegedly committed suicide after being involved in the leak of government information. Robert Meldrum is excellent as Kelly, tortured by his inability to protect his beloved Iraqi and sickened by a Government intent on lying. In one of many horrific moments of the night, Kelly recounts the story of what happened to a close friend, the owner of a rarified book shop in Bagdad. It’s a true story that I will not easily forget.
The last and most searing monologue Instruments of Learning is the story of Nehrjas al Saffarh, “daffodil”, a well-known member of the communist party and mother of four tortured by Saddam Hussein’s secret police in the 1970s. She died when the Americans bombed her home during the first Gulf War. Eugenia Fragos as daffodil is superb, bringing many in the audience to tears with a powerful and intense performance recounting details from her imprisonment that are so horrific, it is hard to believe people could inflict or survive such torment.
I usually avoid the monologue format in theatre finding it too confining, but this powerful and poetic docudrama brilliantly directed by Daniel Clarke, never once feels static. Thompson’s writing is so good it opens vistas into the lives of each character and together they merge to form a powerful condemnation of a war of which the lead-up, execution and aftermath was itself like watching theatre of the grotesque. This is a well-crafted production, with each actor able to bring to life images of visceral horror that dance before your eyes. A warning, the graphic content is affecting and not for the faint-hearted.
On my way home my companion and I wondered how would we behave living in the circumstances the Iraqis have endured for so long, or how would we react if we were tortured or ordered to torture others? The play made me think in a culture, our culture, which can descend to such depths, what random acts of torture are happening right now?
Thompson’s play is dedicated to “the thousands of Iraqi children who have endured unimaginable suffering for so very long”, a fitting tribute.
The details: Palace Of The End will play at TheatreWorks, St Kilda, until June 16. Tickets on the venue website.