Thursday 14 March 2013

Palace of the End: a standout Montreal play on Iraq

After writing some preview articles for The Suburban about  the Waterworks Company’s  production of Palace of the End, award-winning Canadian playwright Judith Thompson’s triptych ( a work of art broken into three parts) exploring the tragedy of the Iraq War, I was anxious to see a performance. I headed out to  Espace 4001, a cozy little theatre I have never experienced before, and left feeling quite affected by the stories.

The three actors do not interact at all on stage. Yet they enter the scene together, following a recorded announcement of former US President  George W. Bush declaring the coalition’s attack of Iraq.

Valassis, Findlay and Marchand.

In Palace of the End, Thompson   imagines the lost words and thoughts of three participants in the agony of modern Iraq.  Alexandra Valassis, as Nehrjas Al-Saffarh,  Sarah Marchand (prison guard Pvt. Lynndie England)  and Michael Findlay (Dr. David Kelly )  perform 30 minutes each of powerful monologues.        

The triptych opens with  My Pyramids,  \inspired by the freakish rise to fame of Abu Ghraib prison guard   England, who shot to fame when she took part in detainee abuse at  the Iraqi prison. She was sentenced to three years behind bars, chiefly for  taking  photos of naked detainees in degrading poses which went public. Marchand’s  presentation  is  hard hitting, pulls no punches and uses some of the foul language you would expect to come  out of the mouth of England. Why did England walk a prisoner around like a dog?  Because he called her a dog!

Harrowdown Hill featured the last testament of weapons inspector   Kelly   as he lies dying, after throwing away his career and reputation to warn the world that the case for war was a lie.  In 2003,   Kelly was   identified in newspapers as the man the government believed was the source for a controversial BBC report on Iraq which cast doubt on the government's claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction capable of being deployed within 45 minutes.After he was named in newspapers,   Kelly gave evidence to MPs' committees in which he said he did not believe he was the main source of the story. Two days after his testimony, he was found dead  near his home of an apparent suicide.  Findlay not only gives a remarkable performance, but after his character’s death he managed to lay still on the floor for a half hour.

Instruments of Yearning   sees the very talented Valassis really get deep into her role as  an Iraqi dissident and a survivor of Saddam’s prisons. As she loses her family one by one to the regime’s torturers and murderers, she hopes against hope that somewhere, sometime, some change will bring a better life to her country.   Valassis gets very very close to the seats in the audience and seems to be talking directly to each of them. Her accent is dead on and you really feel the pain for the character she plays, a woman who suffered unspeakable tragedy at the hands of Iraqi monsters before she herself dies – the victim of an American bomb.  I was exhausted watching her and when I met her after the show she looked pretty tired as well.

 Valassis confessed that this role has been a true challenge. “It was  a little intimidating,” she said. “I have been acting for 18 years and I never had to do a 30 minute monologue  before. I have really enjoyed working with the team though. I think audiences will find the play enjoyable to watch and very educational.”

The fact that this play comes on the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by US and  British forces gives it even more punch. It’s a good time to repeat the message, 10 years on,” Directo Rob Langford maintains. " Over the past two months, Sarah, Michael, and Alexandra have worked like crazy, and they have created (or re-created) three fully-fleshed characters, all beautiful in their way, who display the best and worst in humanity. To me, this is acting for the theatre at its classic best, and I’m proud and humbled to have been able to work with them."
Palace of the End plays at  Espace 4001 ( 4001 Berri) for eight performances only until March 24:  Thursday to Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Advance tickets are available online at and at the door (cash only). The Sunday matinee is a two for one  special  to encourage word-of-mouth. If you want to see some living history, then check this show out. Head there early like I did. There are several excellent restaurants just around the corner on Duluth.

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