Stuff Happens**** (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Posted: July 9, 2016 in Theatre

stuff-happens-e1467872667289This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

It has taken Sir John Chilcot seven years to finalise his report on the second Iraq war and its surrounding circumstances. Playwright David Hare delivered his verdict on events leading up to that war on the stage of the National’s Olivier Theatre little more than a year after the initial US/UK-led invasion took place in March 2003.

The title derives from a casual reaction by US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld after looting broke out in Baghdad and the play is revived here under Hare’s own direction in the form of a rehearsed reading by a group of 21 eminent actors. When he wrote the play, Hare is unlikely to have known that, in July 2002, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair had pledged to US President George W Bush “I will be with you whatever”, as has now been revealed by Chilcot. However, he gets remarkably close to what is now known to be the truth and he presents the play using much the same script that was performed originally, with only minor modifications to reflect subsequent events.

The play is a docudrama that very rarely strays into satire, with the familiar, avuncular Bill Nighy here standing at a lectern throughout, acting as narrator. The timeline runs roughly from the terrorist atrocities of 11 September 2001 through to the 42-day war of 2003, examining the processes that led the US to invade Iraq and the UK to join in the operation. There are times when the bombardment of facts threatens to weigh down the play, but Hare varies the tone astutely with impassioned, eloquent speeches and dashes of humour.

Bush (Alex Jennings) comes across as a simple man, not a simpleton, an indecisive president who is disinterested in detail and easy to manipulate. More concerned with sticking to his regular 10.00pm bedtime than with continuing vital discussions into the night, he is surrounded by raging hawks, Vice President Dick Cheney (Corey Johnson) and Rumsfeld (Nicholas Woodeson), his conciliatory Secretary of State, Colin Powell (Danny Sapani) and his assertive personal adviser, Condoleeza Rice (Adjoa Andoh). Hare’s vision of the White House at this time borders on the surreal, leaving us half expecting Dr Strangelove to emerge from the cellar below.

Blair (Julian Sands) is portrayed as deluded rather than devious. Buoyed by two landslide election victories, his dominance in UK politics is shown to have fostered the belief that he can punch above his weight on the world stage. Obsequious as a real life Uriah Heep in his encounters with Bush, dithering and panic-stricken on the home front, he is the only figure exaggerated to near caricature and this version of him does not ring quite true. Even so, Hare, a prominent supporter of the Labour Party, seems to find more sympathy for Blair’s self-made dilemma than Chilcot has done.

Hare does not dwell on the enigma of why a leader from the centre left of British politics could ally himself so closely to an American administration leaning towards the far right. His only comment relevant to this is that Blair and Bush have one thing in common – each is driven by his own brand of religious fervour. Ironically, non-existent weapons of mass destruction have ultimately destroyed the reputations of both men

This bold and incisive play is a striking illustration of why theatre has a place at the very heart of political debate. In the years following the Iraq War and its own devastation, a region has been destabilised leading to chaos and further carnage, new international terror groups have emerged, millions in Iraq and neighbouring Syria have been displaced from their homes and forced to seek refuge in other countries, Bush has retired to the luxury of his Texas ranch and Blair has amassed a personal fortune, having presented himself to the world as “Middle East Peace Envoy”. Yes, stuff happens, but Hare’s purpose in offering up this play to us again is to ask how we can stop stuff like this from ever happening in the future.

Performance date: 6 July 2016

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