I went to David Hare’s play Stuff Happens last night. Thinking a lot of the playwright, I’ve been disappointed by the most recent productions I’ve seen Via Dolorosa and The Judas Kiss, both of which were OK but basically dull.
The play is really a documentary about the invasion of Iraq how the political decision got made. ‘Political’ theatre is always tricky (for me anyway) as didacticism is painful and, though a political play needs a point of view, that point of view needs to add insight. Being left or right doesn’t add anything we don’t know.
The problem is compounded by the fact that Hare’s left of centre views are reinforced by a theatrical culture which is pretty uncritically left. And while I’m in awe of our theatrical community’s skill in their craft, a lot of them are none too self critical or even self aware. They have an instinct for clich© rarely more so than when doing political theatre and never more so than when performing scripts that agree with all their soft left priors.
The first half of the play was pretty poor I thought consisting of not much more than set pieces – extracts from the public record – many of which we’d seen before on the TV. These were played for various effects which were fairly predictable.
For instance much was made of “Stuff happens” Rumsfeld’s comment when the looting started. This is driven home at the end of the play when an Iraqi woman wanders the stage saying she can’t imagine a more racist statement. Well yes, it’s easy to see that side of it. Not too many Americans greeted Sept 11 with dismissive observations that ‘stuff happens’. I don’t know if Rumsfeld’s comment reflected the implicit racism of which he was accused. It’s quite likely that it did.
Then again it’s quite possible it didn’t. Rumsfeld is one of the politicians I’m always grateful for that is someone who really doesn’t try to dress up what he’s saying in euphemistic gobbledygook. Rather he tries to argue for his case then you can vote for him or against him (I’d vote against him because I think the policies he’s been pursuing are somewhere between irresponsibly risky and hubristically mad).
Rummy was (surely) also making a point which was a perfectly valid one to the reptiles of the press that what the coalition were engaged in was bound to have its ugly side. It is a war. So he wanted the media to judge it as a war. I’m not trying to argue that this behaviour was exemplary. Only that it was entirely understandable ‘normal’ political behaviour of attending to the advantage of one’s own side.
That’s what politicians do its also what they have to do. So to have it turned into a kind of iconic statement offering deep insight into the true nature of things well I think that’s basically a bit of a trick. Sometimes these defining and endlessly repeated comments really are unambiguously revealing (eg; core promises). But mostly they’re not. Their rehearsal robs them of context to strengthen a point or in one case (life wasn’t meant to be easy) context becomes all (that a privileged man was saying it) when the content of what was said was both unexceptional and indeed wise.
Anyway, the first half was full of set speeches from the TV transcripts which the actors hammed up in fairly predictable ways and it seemed Hare had invited them to do so. I was surprised that the nearly one and a half hours of the first half passed so fast. I’m not sure why I wasn’t more bored. I guess it’s quite entertaining seeing all those clips one has seen before re-enacted and watching history that one is familiar with unfold.
There was also the acting. Those who played Bush and Rummy were marvelous. Leah Purcell was uncanny in getting Condi Rice (though I could have done with less mincing in her walk). The French Ambassador was wonderful. Everyone thought Colin Powell was well acted, but the problem for me was that all the actor did was look like Powell. He was much more forceful in his delivery than the world weary Powel.
The one real sign of life in the first half was a spirited speech made by Colin Powell. I enjoyed the speech but noted that it was way too powerfully delivered to really seem like Powel. Still that was no crime if you’re trying to get a bit of theatre going.
The second half was much better and much more like Hare. For me Hare’s great gift is to have the audience see both sides of a difficult situation a kind of courtroom drama of life in which you think ‘he’s right’ after one person’s speech and ‘no he’s not; she’s right’ after another. That’s what was great about Plenty. The heroine was impossible, but he had you (well me!) sympathising with her and her point of view. Skylight was a classic as the landlord defended his right of centre view of the world (from memory he was born in the working class) with the well educated middle class tenant who had chosen relative poverty defending the left and (from memory) feminism. It was marvelous because it fleshed out both positions so convincingly. Each position was made more powerful and more cogent by the strength of its opposing view.
In the second half of “Stuff Happens” there were far fewer set reenactments from the record and much more dramatic reconstruction. Bush was portrayed as a mercurial mixture of quiet folksy craziness and unengaged, and unreachable decisiveness. As convincing a portrait of the guy that I’ve seen. (Who knows what’s going on in there?). Anyway, this was enough to snare both Powell and Blair who thought they were in a negotiation. In a sense they were because they triumphed over Chaney and Rumsfeld in getting Bush to the UN. But in the end that just worked like a trap for them.
Both were presented fairly sympathetically to the audience. But thinking about it, in the end it was demonstrated how they were building on the sand. Both were incapable of disengaging from political wheeling and dealing when it mattered. They ended up high and dry, with nothing to show for their efforts, not even their principles.
I don’t think that “Stuff Happens” is anything like Hare’s best play (which for me is Skylight). But it’s good occasionally very good as for instance when Blair loses his temper. He rants to his advisors about Saddam’s complete lack of political cunning in failing to give the Coalition some WMDs to discover and destroy. Hare’s Blair just can’t credit it.
It’s worth seeing. But if you think it was a good idea to go marching into Iraq you probably won’t like it and shouldn’t go.
Having looked up David Hare on Wikipedia, I discover he wrote an episode of “The Young Indiana Jones’. So there you go!