A three-hour docudrama about the diplomatic and personal battles that led to the invasion of Iraq may not be everyone’s cup of tea. British playwright David Hare, however, is a celebrated master at translating social issues into flesh and blood characters.
Stuff Happens (the words of the US Defense secretary in response to the looting of Baghdad) is a parade of the main characters who walked the world’s stage, between the 9/ 11 attacks and the quagmire of Iraq today. Hare uses their public words but also makes convincing drama from their confidential meetings and machinations. All your old favourites are there: Bush and Blair and their wives; Powell and Rice; Cheney, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld; old Hans Blix and Kofi Annan, the French and even a few Iraqis!
Director Neil Armfield shows his unerring skill at casting, with the dozen actors universally brilliant at capturing the mannerisms and speech of their famous characters. The set-up is perhaps unavoidably laborious -“ it’s a big story to tell -“ but by the end each actor shines with the charisma of the real character. We have glimpsed real people in private, the way power is shifted and exerted between individuals, the almost muddled way collective decisions are made. And through all there is a good deal of humour, and pathos.
In crisp short scenes and powerful ensemble moments, the galloping pace of events is played out surrounded by a skeleton of tortured metal, reminiscent of the remains of the World Trade Centre. Hare tells this epic compellingly, unimpeded by the confusion we’ve all felt through years of opposing opinions, daily updates and sheer propaganda. If journalism offers the first draft of history, Hare writes, here’s a modest stab at the second.
Some, wrongly, have dammed the storyteller as too partisan. Stuff Happens is partisan only if you believe the words of Bush’s administration that Iraq is a legitimate battleground against terrorism. Hare shows an America that post-9/ 11 had to go to war against something, anything. His Bush (Greg Stone) is inarticulate and evangelical but cunning as he waits for the gathering hawks to make that war inevitable.
Rhys Muldoon is a polite but exasperated ally in Tony Blair, Leah Purcell a mesmerising, inscrutable Condoleezza Rice, Wayne Blair an endearing if manipulated Colin Powell, to name just some of the powerful cast, and some of the reasons to see this play.
Stuff Happens is a Company B Belvoir Street production at the Seymour Centre until 21 August.