Hampstead Theatre Spring 2017
Occupational Hazards is an illustrated history lesson filling in the details of a story we probably know in broad terms. It is a morality tale whose moral is neither original nor surprising, but well worth the restating.
What it isn't, is a play.
Stephen Brown has adapted for the stage a memoir by Rory Stewart of his experiences in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Then a young member of the British foreign service, Stewart was unusual in speaking Arabic and knowing the region well, and he was put in charge of bringing democracy to an important Iraqi province.
This involved constant diplomatic courting, mollifying and deal-brokering among opposing power groups, represented in the play by an ambitious tribal leader and a fundamentalist preacher.
We watch as the play's Rory Stewart patiently and inventively nudges the opponents closer together while putting out brush fires along the way, only to discover that the only thing the enemies hate more than each other is the occupying British.
And perhaps only with hindsight does he sense what they saw from the start, that the West's attempts to help Iraq move toward modern democracy had too much of implicitly racist Victorian paternalism and The White Man's Burden about them to ever succeed in the Twenty-first Century.
It is very much to the credit of writers Stewart and Brown, director Simon Godwin and a hard-working cast that this complex and subtle story is always clear and its points made without overt preaching.
But while the play is full of incidents, there's no drama to them. There are no mysteries, surprises or suspense. You might not be able to predict every single event in the order they occur, but no event carries any surprise.
Meanwhile nobody grows, nobody is changed, nobody learns anything from the story, unless perhaps (It's ambiguous) the play's Stewart finally realises that his work was misguided and doomed from the start.
Indeed, none of the characters really exist as characters. They are all given names, and in at least some cases are evidently based on real people. But they have so little individuality and reality that they might just as well carry allegorical labels: Tribal Leader, Fundamentalist Preacher, Revolutionary Hothead, Modern Islamic Woman and the like.
None, not even Well-Meaning Young Diplomat, have any personalty beyond their plot functions.
Henry Lloyd-Hughes, onstage almost continuously as Stewart, does hold everything together, and Silas Carson as Tribal Leader has a strong physical presence (by which I mean he's taller than most of the others).
But there is ultimately nobody for the actors to portray and no real story to hold us – and thus no play here.
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Review - Occupational Hazards - Hampstead Theatre 2017