As a birthday treat, a friend took me to see David Hare’s “Stuff Happens” at the National Theatre – the most important piece of political art I’ve seen recently.
“Stuff Happens” is the story of the events leading to the 19 March 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous comment on the footage of museum looting in Iraq:
“Stuff happens! … freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things, and that’s what’s going to happen here.”
“Stuff Happens” is ambitious: the story of Bush’s coterie and the politics that lead to war, the public dialogue culled from transcripts, and the behind-the-scenes diplomacy imagined on the basis of meetings know to have happened.
The cast is enormous: Bush, Blair, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Kofi Annan and Hans Blix carry the bulk of the story – but with a cast of over 20 the bit players in a complex story are well represented.
Most of the time the cast are simply men and women in dark suits, on a black stage, the only set a large number of classy chairs and a large meeting table.
For all the author’s known politics, the narrative (while enough to scandalise the average Republican) is not a cosy sop to we pinko-lefties. The story is stitched together by “viewpoints” – provocative monologues in the voices of journalists, Palestinians, Iraqi exiles.
The first is a direct confrontation: a journalist bitterly raging against the West’s self-referential hand-wringing and mud-slinging about toppling a dictatorship:
“From what height of luxury and excess we look down to condemn the exact style in which even a little was given to those who had nothing … Imagine if you will, if you are able, a dictator in Europe, murdering his own people, attacking his neighbours, killing half a million people for no other offence than proximity. Do you really imagine, hand on heart, that the finer feelings of the international community, the exact procedures of the United Nations would need to be tested, would the finer points of sovereignty detain us, before we rose, as a single force, to overthrow the offender? … A people hitherto suffering now suffer less. This is the story. No other story obtains.”
A wake-up call to the audience, but one that also prompts the question: “Are they suffering less?” The play is not neat, it raises awkward questions, few are caricatures – except, of course, the French.
There are definite moments of humour throughout, much of it culled from real-life comments made about principals (a colleague comments of Wolfowitz: “The word ‘hawk’ doesn’t do Wolfowitz justice. What about velociraptor?”). Kofi Annan trying to phone the deadpan Hans Blix while hiking in Patagonia is simply hysterical.
The acting was superb. Nicholas Farrell is astonishing as Tony Blair: he has the voice and mannerisms down perfectly.
Even greater an achievement is Alex Jennings as George W. Bush. Jennings’ Bush is a cipher: one is never far from the power of the man, never certain whether his deadpan style and homey phrases reveal a fool – or a powerful conviction politician. The play puts over the view that while his Cabinet argues, and while his is heavily dependent on Rice, he takes the decisions: consciously, independently and ultimately, unchallengeable.
In the end, the real hero of the play isn’t Annan, or Blix, but Powell: the man whose job it is to make the hard arguments both to his own people, and the foreigners – and the one man in power with a real understanding of what it means to go to war. Joe Morton does a powerful job with a sensitively scripted part.
The villain, if there is one, is Rumsfeld: unilaterally setting the agenda by press conference much to the dismay and fury of both Blair and Powell.
(And a brief shout-out to Australian Phillip Quast in a range of roles including CIA chief George Tenet.)
If the play is contentious, it is in making the following suggestions: (1) the (abandoned) Middle East road map was essentially (though not on Powell’s part) an exercise to make Blair’s position survivable in the War debate in the Commons, as the Bush administration had already settled on a policy of overt re-alignment with Israel; and (2) that Iraq was chosen principally as a easy target, as “winnable” a second-phase to the Afghanistan campaign – both of which were a necessary show of American strength after September 11.
Criticisms? Of course. This is very much an English play – it is a play about where the “special relationship” can take you; it is about how the English can get caught between US and French diplomacy. The rest of the world gets a look in, but only just.
A play about contemporary history has a problem finding a satisfactory dramatic conclusion. Colin Powell’s passage out of the play will resonate more if and when he’s dropped from the Bush Cabinet.
However, it collates recent events and engages in a useful myth-making, a provocative recap of two years of recent history. It would be costly to stage elsewhere, but it deserves to be seen in Australia, the US, Europe.
It also makes the devastating - and obvious - point in the final “viewpoint” that the Iraqis themselves did not feature very highly in the thinking about Iraq.