TWO OF the three characters whose stories are told in Judith Thompson’s powerful Iraq War drama Palace Of The End will already be familiar to Western audiences.
Lynndie England is the American soldier photographed abusing captives in Abu Ghraib while David Kelly is the British scientist who committed suicide over the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ controversy.
Less familiar will be the third character in the play; the Iraqi woman Nehrjas Al Saffarh. Yet her story is perhaps the most haunting of all and it is the one from which the play derives its title.
In the Manchester Royal Exchange production of the play which is coming to Galway Arts Festival the role of Nehrjas is played by Eve Polycarpou and her presence in the play contains a remarkable story of its own.
Polycarpou grew up in Brighton; both her parents are Greek Cypriots who made their living in the clothing and food industries. She however gravitated towards a career in the arts where her impressively varied CV includes stints as actress, singer, songwriter, composer, guitarist, and scriptwriter.
For many years she has also been half of the successful singer-and-performing duo Martha and Eve, with her fellow Greek Cypriot Martha Lewis.
“At different periods I’ve been more into either theatre or music,” she recalls over an afternoon conversation. “Lately I’ve been doing more acting work but I’m starting to get itchy feet about getting back to singing. Myself and Martha are talking abut putting together a big celebration show next year because we’ve been performing together on and off now for nearly 25 years.
“We’re like soul sisters at this stage; we had similar Greek Cypriot upbringings where we were kind of expected to settle down and be traditional wives and mothers but we both rebelled against that and made careers for ourselves in the arts.”
Polycarpou’s credits to date include appearances in hit TV shows like Jonathan Creek and Morse, leading roles with the Royal National Theatre and Leicester Haymarket, and a number of successful CD releases and international tours in tandem with Lewis.
Then, one day last year, all that suddenly seemed to be jeopardised and her life itself was endangered by a serious medical crisis.
“On April 30 last year I was rushed to hospital with extremely high blood pressure and after blood tests, CT and MRI scans, I was told I had a pituitary brain tumour,” Polycarpou says. “I was then given an emergency transnoidal brain surgery operation and part of the tumour was removed. Then I received radiotherapy at the end of last year to sterilise and shrink the remaining tumour, which is encasing the main carotid artery of my brain.
“Anyway, the good news is that I have just received my latest MRI and blood test results to see the effect of the radiotherapy...and although the tumour is still very large, it is slowly shrinking. It may take another five years but the carotid artery is not restricted and the pituitary gland is still functioning OK.
So...what this all means is that...yes I still have a ‘benign’ pituitary brain tumour, but I am almost definitely not going to be brain damaged or suffer a stroke or go blind and I do not at this stage need to worry about any hormone replacement or cortisol. I’m currently writing a book about the whole experience entitled Living With A Sense Of Tumour!”
Remarkably, it was while she was still undergoing treatment that the Royal Exchange’s Gregory Hersov approached her about appearing in Palace Of The End.
“Gregory showed me the script and I was deeply moved by this woman’s story but at the time I wasn’t sure if I’d even be fit enough to read the script let alone perform in the play,” Polycarpou says, “but I asked my consultant for his opinion and he said it was important to have an optimistic attitude.
“There was also a six-week gap between the end of my radiotherapy course and the commencement of rehearsals which gave me time to get my strength up for the play. One of the things I find amazing about doing the role is that performing it was part of my own process of recovery yet I am telling the story of this woman who suffered incredibly at the hands of the Saddam regime. Relating her tale certainly made me feel very humble and thankful for my own life.”
Polycarpou expands on the story of Nehrjas Al Saffarh.
“She was the wife of the leader of the Iraqi Communist Party, this was in the period before the Iran-Iraq war,” she says. “They were just ordinary people who didn’t want a dictatorship and who were opposed to Saddam Hussein. Interestingly, the Communist Party contained people from all religions – Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
“She and her family were subjected to arrest and torture by Hussei’s Ba’athist police [The Palace of the End is revealed to be the name of the torture chamber where they were brought]. Throughout it all she displays this great strength and resilience which is very moving. Judith Thompson has amalgamated details from one or two other individual’s stories into this part of the play but the part is so well written, she’s clearly really thought about it. I would say it’s the best role I’ve ever had the good fortune to play.”
Polycarpou also speaks glowingly of her colleagues in the production.
“It’s been very exciting for me working with Greg and with Kellie and Robert who are both fabulous actors,” she says. “These people just bring so much heart and passion to their work that it automatically rubs off on you and inspires you. This show has been a wonderful experience for me.”
For tickets contact the festival box office, Merchants Road, 091 - 566577. Tickets are also available through www.galwayartsfestival.com