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A CurtainUp London London Review
Stuff Happens

I could eat a baby through the bars of a cot!
--- Donald Rumsfeld
Stuff Happens
Nicholas Farrell as Prime Minister Tony Blair, Don Gallagher as Alastair Campbell, Angus Wright as David Manning, Nick Sampson as Jonathan Powell
(Photo: Ivan Kyncl)

Do we need another play/movie/documentary/book about George W. Bush and his merry men (and woman)? Don't we already know enough? Aren't our positions clear? Or is there something more for us to learn? Well, playwright David Hare thinks there is and director Nicholas Hytner agrees with him and so Stuff Happens happens on the stage of the National Theatre.

"Stuff happens" was Secretary Rumsfeld's press conference response to a question about the looting of Baghdad's priceless archaeological heritage. One suspects Rumsfeld's slack-jawed hillbilly hokum was the inspiration for Hare, whose work often deals with the way modern politics distorts values, individuals, and institutions. A sense of outrage at such wilfully ignorant philistinism is the prevailing key for this piece from the start, although the emotional varies to include a peculiarly British queasy guilt at Prime Minister Blair's involvement in this most dodgy of capers.

As with The Permanent Way - his examination of the political destruction of Britain's public rail system - Hare uses a variety of documents to let events speak for themselves. The vast empty circular stage gradually fills with men (and a few women) in business suits and we are introduced to the major protagonists, or usual suspects, if you prefer. The cast do such a good job of impersonation that you risk nightmares if you sit too near the stage.

Here's Alex Jennings as George W., with his fixed Stan-Laurel-about-to-cry grin and awkward gait, as if he's seriously in need of a bathroom. Here's Desmond Barrit's scary Dick Cheney, his lips heroically twisted into a three-hour sneer. (You hope both of them manage to untwist their features before they get home). Here's Dermot Crowley as Rumsfeld and Ian Gelder's Wolfowitz, who need war the way other men need Viagra. And here's Adjoa Andoh's Condoleezza Rice who, Hare did surprise me by saying, nearly went into the music rather than the politics business: you would certainly have wanted her on your side if you stumbled in the vicious Rap wars of the '90's.

Hare depicts narrow minds forged in the Vietnam debacle (men who had learnt nothing and forgotten nothing, as Talleyrand put it); a lust, not for power, but to use power; arrogance twinned with ignorance; and, to complete the march of folly, the lack of any military experience in any, with the exception of Colin Powell. Hare tries to turn Powell into something like a Shakespearean tragic hero: the battle-hardened man of experience and integrity who stands alone in Bush's cabinet, but who later, and unaccountably, buckles under and joins the rest of the gang.

And this is perhaps the problem with Stuff Happens. What is it for?

Is it meant to inform us? It certainly gives us a lot of information, information that comes with all the power of a first rate National Theatre production, though when it comes to diplomatic manoeuvrings it still feels like too much.

Is it meant to persuade? Perhaps, though Hare is careful to present alternate interpretations to what appears to be his own. But if you take a positive view of the war you're unlikely to have bought a ticket.

Is it meant to entertain? Obviously not, in the sense of distract or divert, but perhaps to convey truths about the world through the medium of drama. Hare insists his piece is a play, a history play. The assumption here is that the writer knows the historical truth of the last two years and uses dramatic devices - the representation of character, the arousal of emotion, the sequence of narrative - to communicate them to us who don't, or aren't sure.

"Nothing in the narrative is knowingly untrue," says Hare, but "When the doors close on the world's leaders … then I have used my imagination." How much you enjoy Stuff Happens depends on how convincing you find Hare's imagination. At times it just doesn't seem up to the job.

For example, Hare reconstructs a conversation between Bush and Powell where the Secretary of State tries to divert his leader from the path of war. But Hare's Powell sounds like a Guardian reader, which the man may well be, but I doubt he'd address his President with the rhetorical verve of the leader page. And would Powell call him "George" rather than "Mr President", even in private? And would Powell know, let alone use, Bill Hicks' marvellous gag about still having the receipts for Saddam's WMD's? I somehow doubt it. But, more seriously, does Hare really believe Powell could have dissuaded Bush if it hadn't been for that two-faced Condoleezza? This is certainly implied by the scene, which is otherwise dramatically redundant: it neither illuminates nor convinces.

This is dangerously close to blinkered cliché, as is giving Bush a near-asinine, Texan drawl throughout, just to mock him, when there is evidence that the president can turn his homely twang on for public consumption, while talking quite differently in private. Hare's Cheney and Rumsfeld are also vivid but implausible characters, angry as snapping turtles or, as Seinfeld's George Costanza once said, old men sending back soup in a deli. Does Hare really believe such one-dimensional men could have risen to this eminence? They may be repellent, but are they stupid? Hare's imagination just can't get as close to conveying the complexities of the White House and its strange denizens as the writers of, say, The West Wing or even 24.

Hare's insistence that he is writing a play also leads him to dramatise Powell's meeting with diplomats in New York. The actual historic weight of this could have been conveyed in a few lines, but Hare pulls out all the stops to reconstruct the event before our very eyes, complete with table and cutlery. This doesn't work: it's too long, too creaky, too stodgy and too easy. If Hare's Bush is a bumpkin, his French Foreign Minister, (Nick Sampson) is a stereotype of the Gallic Machiavelli, complete with rolling accent and lust for lunch, whereas the real Dominique de Villepin is a poet who speaks English more clearly than most Britons. Equally bogus is the portrayal of Hans Blix as Pippi Longstocking's absent-minded great grandfather. (Although his chilling encounter with Cheney - "If you don't find WMD we're ready to discredit you" - does carry conviction.)

On the other hand, Britain's own cheerleader for war, Tony Blair, is shown as witty, clued-up and resolute while his famously combative right hand man, Alastair Campbell, is mild and self-effacing. Is Hare over-using his imagination here, or does he have really good evidence for these hitherto unreported character traits? By his own admission, Blair was woefully ill-informed on vital aspects of the proposed to the point of incompetence. But Hare can also do those cherishable Michael Moore moments, where Blair's puppy-like desire to please Bush makes him ridiculous. The effect here is as if Hugh Grant had wandered into an episode of the Sopranos, assisted the gang with a particularly nasty massacre solely out of politeness, and then been left to explain away the corpses to the police by an ungrateful godfather.

Stuff Happens may well exhaust the current vogue for docudrama. Hare believes the significance of the events themselves lends weight to his play. But weight is not enough and chronology is merely sequence, not structure and the play needs structure. The piece is contentious in its themes, which is fine, but because the characters are presented rather than imagined, it is only intermittently involving and lacks pace or development of its own. To be fair, Hare does insert alternative viewpoints for us to consider, but the power of the direction and performances only serves to endorse his own view. As a production it is very powerful, as a vehicle it isn't.

It may be too early for writers to deal with Afghanistan and Iraq with the magisterial apparatus of the National Theatre. Alistair Beaton's Follow My Leader, which treated the same material as demented vaudeville, hit far more targets. Evidence on which it rests is updated day by day, so its historical assertions can only be provisional. The core material resists dramatic presentationscope and is too wide to be sustainable as drama. It is unlikely to detach supporters of the war from their leaders by portraying their leaders as knuckle-swinging neanderthals.

Stuff Happens
Written by David Hare
Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Starring: Alex Jennings, Desmond Barrit, Isla Blair
With: Joe Morton, Adjoa Andoh, Dermot Crowley, Philip Quast, Tim Donoghue, Iain Mitchell, Alan Leith, Don Gallagher, Kevork Malikhan, Sara Powell, Nicholas Farrell, Angus Wright, Nick Sampson, Robert East, Raad Rawi, Larrington Walker, Ian Gelder, Ewan Hooper, Raeda Ghazaleh
Designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting Designer: Paul Anderson
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Running time: Three hours with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 6th November 2004
Reviewed by Brian Clover based on 21st September 2004 performance at the Olivier Theatre, Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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