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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Stuff Happens
Olivier Theatre      Autumn 2004

Following the mode of last year's The Permanent Way (about the mess of the British railway system), David Hare has constructed another semi-documentary play, this time about the events leading up to the 2003 Iraq war.

The list of characters is made up almost entirely of actual persons, primarily the leading figures in the American and British governments, and the dialogue is a mix of actual public statements and imagined private conversations.

The first thing to say is that this is a far better play than The Permanent Way, in a couple of ways. By mixing the real and the imagined, Hare creates personalities for George W. Bush, Tony Blair and their associates that may not be literally accurate but are dramatically effective.

He thus not only gives history a human face, but generates empathy and understanding even in those members of the audience who may be politically or morally opposed to the characters onstage.

He makes some errors, or perhaps allows himself some shorthand, in playing to audience prejudices and preconceptions. Like too many Europeans, he presents President Bush (played by Alex Jennings) as simply an ignorant buffoon, while others, particularly among the Americans, are allowed to come across as cartoons.

Vice President Cheney (Desmond Barrit) and Defence Secretary Rumsfeld (Dermot Crowley) are practically foaming at the mouth as hawks, while Condoleezza Rice (Adjoa Andoh) is a pushy - one might almost say uppity - woman constantly interrupting conversations to explain what the President means to say.

The British come across somewhat better. Though Nicholas Farrell's Tony Blair begins as just another comic impression, he does develop a somewhat sympathetic portrait of an honourable if not very strong man who ties himself to the Americans in the hope of controlling their excesses and then finds himself unable to disassociate from them.

(One of the best moments Hare gives to Jennings' Bush is when he realizes that he's let Blair slide into serious political trouble at home, and modifies the American position to protect him.)

If Cheney and Rumsfeld, along with the less-well-known American hawk Paul Wolfowitz, are the villains, Blair is a victim and Bush a nonentity,

Hare's hero is American Secretary of State Colin Powell (Joe Morton), who is presented as the one consistent and at least partly effective voice of morality and reason.

He is given one of the longest speeches in the play, in an imagined conversation with the President, in which he explains with convincing clarity and eloquence why the American drive towards war is untenable on logistic, geopolitical and moral grounds, and his frustration as his influence weakens is one of the emotional spines of the play..

There is no question that Hare and most of his audience think the war was, at the very least, a mistake. But another of the ways that this play is superior to The Permanent Way is that he does allow effective expressions of opposing positions.

When the historical figures aren't eloquent or convincing enough, Hare interpolates what he calls Viewpoints, spoken by Angus Wright, Ilsa Blair and other cast members out of character.

Here the case is made, and made well, that a murderous tyrant was removed and therefore good was done, even if it was not done in the cleanest or smoothest of ways.

This is not a play for the ages. But neither is it a simplistic bit of Bush-and-Blair-bashing, and for that, considerable credit must be given to Hare, to director Nicholas Hytner, and to the cast.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Stuff Happens - National Theatre 2004

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