PALACE OF THE END by Judith Thompson, directed by David Storch, with Maev Beaty, Julian Richings and Arsinée Khanjian. Presented by Canadian Stage at the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). Previews from Monday (January 14), opens January 17 and runs to February 23, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm, Saturday 2 pm. $20-$58, limited rush and Monday pay-what-you-can. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN
A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked actor Maev Beaty what it felt like to be working on the controversial new Judith Thompson play, Palace Of The End.
“I said, ‘Challenging, lonely, worth it, exhilarating,’” recalls Beaty a couple of weeks before the play, a series of monologues inspired by real-life characters affected by the Iraq war, opens at Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Theatre.
No wonder her reaction has been so extreme. Her character is based on one of the more notorious figures in recent history.
Beaty plays a woman loosely inspired by Lynndie England, the court-martialled U.S. soldier who was photographed demeaning Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib prison.
Those disturbing photos – particularly those of her pointing at naked prisoners and their genitals – have seeped into popular culture and even been mimicked in South Park and Simpsons episodes.
“One of our biggest tasks as actors is to learn how not to judge a character,” says Beaty, radiating the same warmth and intelligence she’s shown onstage in roles like last season’s Goblin Market and Canadian Stage’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in High Park.
Beaty is well equipped to deal with the politics of the piece. Her mother has worked for 10 years with the United Nations’ humanist movement. She sent Beaty reams of background material. In fact, at one point in our interview Beaty shows me a transcript of an interview with a male soldier talking about abuse of women in the Abu Ghraib compound to illustrate a point. It’s shocking stuff.
One of her key pieces of research came from watching the recent documentary Ghosts Of Abu Ghraib, which features interviews with several male and female soldiers at the prison.
“It was amazing to meet these people and see how completely normal they were – and are,” says Beaty. “It’s not another kind of person, it’s someone in the wrong situation. For me, the most earth-shattering theatre is the stuff that asks, ‘What would I do?’ A lot of these soldiers had so little information. That prison environment was hell.
“That isn’t to say that you’re simply a victim of your circumstances. You have to take responsibility for your actions, but this is more extreme than anything I’ve ever had to deal with.”
It’s been a breakthrough year for Beaty, who’s performed in successful Belltower Theatre projects like Ma Jolie and The Unforgetting at SummerWorks. Her Helena in High Park introduced her to a whole other audience, and she says she’s practically pinching herself about the Thompson play.
“I grew up in Kingston’s north end, which is where many of Judith’s darkest plays are set. When I was a teenager,” she says, “she did a play reading at the Grand in Kingston, and that was the closest thing to awe I had ever experienced in the theatre. So this feels like coming home.”
The fact that the play has a social justice component makes the work that much more fulfilling. And because its characters are composites of actual people, Beaty feels that much more responsible for her performance.
“I’d like to say that I feel the same responsibility to all of my characters, but there’s a greater responsibility here because the war’s still happening,” she says. “It’s not over. This is not a time piece, although it deals with people who have passed out of today’s current events. The conflict is ongoing.”
Additional Audio Clips
On the play's language and music:
On her Dream in High Park experience last summer: