Palace view

Judith Thompson’s Iraq play explodes

PALACE OF THE END by Judith Thompson, directed by David Storch (Canadian Stage). At Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). To February 23. $20-$58. 416-368-3110, Rating: NNNN

Holy shit! What’s happened to Arsinée Khanjian? Judith Thompson’s happened to her, that’s what.

Those of us who know Khanjian mostly as the centrepiece of husband Atom Egoyan’s films – all reserve, speaking broken-cadence dialogue totally appropriate for Egoyan’s aesthetic – will be shocked to see her gripping performance as an Iraqi mother in Palace Of The End.

We’ve seen her passion before (I’m a fan of her title turn in the 2005 movie Sabah), but nothing as magnetic as this woman mourning her losses under Saddam’s regime, particularly at the torture chambers known by locals as the Palace of the End.

Khanjian is working with material by a writer who’s taken her own art to a new level. Thompson’s never shied away from tough material, but here she plunges into the realm of international politics with stunning results. This is intense work (torture is described in explicit terms) not for the squeamish.

The show, comprising three monologues, starts with Maev Beaty’s evocation of a character based on Abu Ghraib bad girl Lynndie England, the American soldier notorious for her participation in the torture of Iraqi prisoners.

Thompson has written unlikeable characters before, but this GI, played powerfully by Beaty, is especially grotesque. The monologue begins with her Googling her own name – genius. But slowly, subtly, insights into where she comes from accumulate: a former Dairy Queen worker, abused by her fellow (male) soldiers, she suddenly gets cred and laughs when she starts abusing prisoners. It’s Thompson’s humanity that allows her to show the roots of her characters’ inhumanity.

My only small complaint has to do with the monologue featuring Julian Richings as the suicidal weapons inspector who fudged the facts so Tony Blair could push the war down Britain’s throat. It’s a terrific performance – Richings’s facial distortions as he screams the word “truth” again and again – are terribly painful to watch. I just wish he’d stood 3 feet closer to the audience. As it is, the intensity gets a little lost.

But then Khanjian comes on, grabs us by the heart and doesn’t let go.

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