Review: Palace of the End – Arcola ****

Palace of the End offers us a steel fist encased in a velvet glove; Judith Thompson’s exquisite triptych of monologues revisits three ghosts of the Iraq war in this flawless production at the Arcola. Her elegant prose and folk-lore esque telling of the stories of three voices of the Iraqi war packs an emotional punch beyond the confines of the Arcola Studio 2.

War, and the atrocities of war, are personal, not political, and Thompson offers us three accounts, each one more searing than the last in an evening of emotional intensity that is superbly written, faultlessly directed and beautifully acted.

Jade Williams as The Soldier, while obviously based on Lynndie England, is the only character of the three who is unnamed.  Thompson clearly implicates all of us in her finely drawn portrayal of the US Private at Abu Ghraib who obsesses over her looks and googles herself on the internet. Williams, in a wandering West Virginia accent, judges her performance well – alternately eliciting our sympathy and horrifying us with her recollections. Williams leads us down through the looking glass while forcing ourselves to examine our generalised prejudices about what we know and what the media tell us.

Imogen Smith as Nehrjas, the voice of life under Saddam, is perhaps the most compelling theatrical performance of the year.

In a timely dramatic moment, Dr David Kelly is the second ghost. As an icon of the war, Kelly is up there with the pictures of Lynndie England’s thumbs-up. If Robin Soans performance as Dr Kelly is perhaps a little actorly, it is nonetheless blisteringly intense, drawing us in to his final moments, inviting us to be witness to his demise. His death on Harrowdown Hill, in shirtsleeves, tie, and glasses is an unnerving juxtaposition to The Soldier. As she, with her white trash outfit and accent is a symbol of America, so this bumbling professor on a hill in Oxfordshire, is a symbol of England.

America, England and finally, Iraq. The voice of Imogen Smith as Nehrjas, the voice of life under Saddam, is perhaps the most compelling theatrical performance of the year. Elegant, dignified, beautiful, she leads us though the atrocities wreaked upon her family without once descending in to melodrama or emotional manipulation. Hers is a detailed, nuanced and controlled performance that is all the more powerful for it’s restraint.

Simon Kenny’s set is sparse; a mirror, a tree, a green landscape beautifully lit by Christopher Nairn, who transforms the space from a bleak prison to an English hill to an Iraqi desert.

But it is Jessica Swales direction that gives this production life. Finely detailed and efficient, she makes the most of the small space available, and encourages her actors to draw the audience in to their stories.

Ultimately we are all ghosts here, and it is Thompson’s intent to remind us that in this world of smoke and mirrors, of secrets and lies, we too often believe what we are told.

**** (4 stars)
Runs until 20th November
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