Hannah Norris, Palace of the End

Palace of the End opens at Theatre Works next week. It’s about the wars in Iraq and tells the stories of three people whose lives changed because of the wars.

Private Lynndie England (played by Hanna Norris) was a 21-year-old US soldier who posed in the infamous photos taken of Iraqi detainees being abused at Abu Ghraib prison. Dr David Kelly (Rob Meldrum) was a British weapons inspector, and Nehrjas Al Saffarh (Eugenia Fragos) was a member of the Communist Party of Iraq.

Writer Judith Thompson combines fact and imagination to create monologues for each character and the work was greeted with critical acclaim and a couple of awards in the UK.

Hannah Norris (Goodbye Ruby Tuesday, My Name is Rachel Corrie) talks with Anne-Marie Peard about finding the humanity and sympathy for a character whose behaviour and beliefs are so far from her own.

Hannah Norris
Hannah Norris

What was your reaction when you first read this play?
I was surprised by voices I hadn’t really thought of before. The life to people who had only been a name, a headline or an image to me. The humanity of the details and circumstances in the lives of the characters.

Before preparing for this play, did the wars in Iraq impact on your life?
I was one of the many thousands of people who protested in the city of Melbourne on Valentine’s Day 2003. So many people, I think they say up to 250,000, came in to Melbourne CBD because we believed Australia should not invade Iraq along with the coalition forces. It was inspiring to see so many people opposed, and disappointing that the action didn’t disrupt or stop our government from participating in the invasion. The lies that then were revealed with the dossiers and about weapons of mass destruction were so shocking. But I feel that I, like a lot of others, in the past few years had become disengaged with the current situation in Iraq. It’s important to be talking about it again 10 years later.

What’s something about these wars that we never saw in our Australian news coverage?
My investigation for Palace of the End has mainly been about Lynndie England and the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib. Discovering more to Lynndie’s story and of the other soldiers involved has been eye opening. Lynndie’s image is a symbol for that abuse, but learning more about her relationship with Charles Graner who was another of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib and the type of man he is, as well as Lynndie’s own personal and family history really made me feel a lot more for her, and far more equipped to tell this story.

You play a real person, what strikes you the most about this person?
That Lynndie could have been anyone. I have no doubt there are millions of other people just like her – or who could have been caught up in this situation – even people I know or who will be in our audiences, maybe even I could have been her. Following orders, drunk on power, in love with a man, in a foreign country, 21 years old, under-educated, misled, in an environment where normal rules no longer seemed to apply, the threat of punishment if you were to disobey or question the actions of others and your superiors… She is no criminal mastermind, not a person of influence.

Is this person someone you would like/have liked to know in your life?
I don’t think we’d get along. We have very different views about the world, and experiences that have made us the people we are, given us the moral codes we have. We have different dreams and ideologies. I could go and meet her, I could actually go to Fort Ashby and find her, I have thought about it – but from knowing what I do of her, I don’t think it would be a good experience.

What’s something you found you had in common with this person?
Being in love with a man and wanting to do anything for him – to make him happy, for him to still want me, desire me: I get that. And I think that is very important to her story.

Has doing this play changed your opinions about Iraq and the wars?
No I don’t think so. But it does make me want to talk about it more, and become more informed, and get more people thinking and talking about Iraq again – and about the decisions our governments make, especially in the lead up to an election.

What drew you to this work?
I like political theatre. And working with Dan (Clarke). That’s a good combo for me.

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced preparing for this show?
Integrating the real-life Lynndie that I know from research, Youtube, docos and print interviews – and the Soldier in the play. ‘My Pyramids’ (my monologue) was the first piece written from Palace of the End, (earlier than 2008, I’m not sure when exactly) – and since it was written, there is more information and interviews from Lynndie and about Abu Ghraib. ‘My Pyramids’ is based on research but is a fictional monologue; it is not verbatim and it includes imagined situations, stories, feelings and reasons for events and behaviour. Some of this is contradictory to factual things I’ve learned about Lynndie.

Also, letting go of imposing too much impersonation or trying to be the Lynndie I’ve seen in interviews. The theatrical setting and potential of the monologue was being limited by me trying to be too much like her, and since I’ve released that, Dan says that a lot more of her essence and character is coming through now.

Who would you love to see in the audience one night?
Tony Abbott!?

Is there anyone you don’t want to see in the audience?

What do you love about working with your director and cast?
I love the way Dan questions me. I trust him completely, I trust in the theatre that he wants to make, so I will try anything in the rehearsal room because I trust that what he chooses, and wants from me, will be the best way to tell the story. I respect Eugenia and Rob greatly, it’s a privilege to be in a cast with them. And our design team is awesome too – I’ve worked with Eugyeene (Teh) and Russell (Goldsmith) before – they’re both very talented and hardworking, and Rob (Sowinski) is new to me. Sam Hopkins our production manager is so valuable to have on the team, and Hayley the stage manager has already said I made her cry, so I’m quite happy to be in a room with her.

What is one of your favourite shows you’ve seen at Theatre Works?
The Year of Magical Wanking: I thought it was ridiculously clever, brave, entertaining and inspiring. And I just think that Dan has done the most amazing job since taking over as creative producer there.

When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
When I fought for it as a teenager. And I am reminded every day, the desire to act has never left me.

Apart from this one, what was the last play you read?
Managing Carmen by David Williamson.

What’s some great theatre advice you’ve used? Who was it from?
In Zoe Caldwell’s book I will be Cleopatra there was a passage where she talked about playing tennis and how you should always play someone better than you – same with acting. Always want to work with people better than you.

What role/character do you really want to play one day?
It used to be Ophelia, and maybe I’m not too old for it… maybe…

You have one trip in the TARDIS; what performance do you see?
Brando. Streetcar.

What actor/director/writer has taught you the most?
Too hard – too many – too much!

What’s your favourite cake from Acland St?
I prefer the gelati shops.

In your wildest dreams, who would you love to work with on a show?
I know that I’d love to be directed with Ian Rickson and act with Ewen Leslie. I could probably get wilder than that – but that would be some good theatre experience right there

Do you read your reviews?

Palace at the End poster
Palace at the End poster

What’s your advice on accepting criticism (or praise)?
Be informed. Know who it is that is saying things about you, what else they like, if you have similar tastes. That it is one person’s opinion. I know who I respect and who’s approval I seek. I try to take the others more lightly whether it be good or bad. It’s always feels good when people say nice things and it always hurts a bit when it’s bad – but to be informed as to where it’s coming from, and even perhaps why they might think like that makes it better and easier.

Convince a stubborn north-sider to head to St Kilda.
The 112 or 96 trams – too easy. But also, my housemate, Cat Commander, says that many men have tried to make her cross the river before but Dan Clarke (what he’s done at Theatre Works) is the only one who has been able to make her do it consistently.

There’s a Pozible campaign to support this show; why should people donate?
It’s tricky asking for money but Dan has asked people to just donate $10 – that’s easy enough (and you can do so here). I especially encourage people from interstate, people who will be getting free tickets or those won’t be able to get to the show to make a donation. 

Palace of the End
Theatre Work
5–16 June

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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