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review of stuff happens

by Jonathan Evans

‘If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.’
Fabian in Twelfth Night

‘Doesn’t matter what it was. When one man says to another, “I know what let’s do today, let’s play the war game.”… everybody dies.’
Major General Stanislaw Sosabowski in A Bridge Too Far

A confession: I’ve never been particularly enamoured of David Hare. Much of the work for which he is best known – The Secret Rapture, Skylight, Amy’s View – has always seemed to me rather narrow, focusing on a very particular social class in a very particular milieu; a kind of Islington Chekhov, without matching Chekhov’s humour and humanity. I find these plays overly didactic, their characters shaped by themes, rather than the themes emerging from the characters. To put it bluntly, I can’t quite believe what people are saying.

There are exceptions. His big state-of-the-nation plays about the Church of England (Racing Demon – my father was disappointed to learn that this wasn’t a comedy about vicars putting the Sunday collection on the horses); the Judiciary (Murmuring Judges); and the Labour Party (The Absence of War) are a different beast entirely. When Hare does epic, he gets interesting.

Stuff Happens, Hare’s depiction of events leading up to the Iraq War of 2003, first staged by the National Theatre the following year and now impeccably brought to Bromley Little Theatre by director Hilary Cordery, is closer to these. But it is different in one important respect. It mixes imagined dialogue with verbatim drama, a technique that Hare had previously explored in his of chronicle of rail privatisation, The Permanent Way.

The play’s title is derived from a comment made by one of its protagonists, US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, concerning disorder in Baghdad following the Anglo-American coalition’s defeat of Saddam Hussein: “Stuff happens, and it’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They are also free to do wonderful things.”

The canvas – crossing continents and taking in the election of George W Bush, the destruction of the twin towers, the war in Afghanistan and the politicking between the USA, the UK and the UN prior to the invasion of Iraq – is huge. Yet, ironically, the play’s action occurs in a series of small and anonymous rooms, perfectly realised by the beige walls of Jan Greenhough’s set, positioned in front of black drapes.

The only notable exterior, Bush’s ranch near Crawford, Texas, “little more than a crossroads in a scorpion-infested wilderness”, is not delineated by significant changes to light and sound. This is telling. The aim, here, is not naturalism. It is to let the words speak through, unfiltered.

Privileging the text above all else lies at the heart of Cordery’s approach, most conspicuously in her decision to employ colour and gender-blind casting. It may take a moment for the audience to adjust, but it acknowledges that Bromley doesn’t have the entirety of Spotlight to draw on to find plausible doubles and – turning a weakness into a strength – avoids the distractions of fake verisimilitude: “Oh, he looks so like Blair, but every now and again he sounds a bit Croydon!”

Attempts at impersonation go little further than Matt Platt’s Texan drawl for his deceptively folksy and easily “misunderestimated” Bush (at one point, caught reading the fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper, though it should really have been The Hungry Caterpillar). That said, Dave Oatley is remarkably like Rumsfeld, a hawk in appearance, demeanour and policy. Stevie Hughes may seem a million miles from Dick Cheney, but he captures with precision the old brute’s hunch-shouldered menace.

Pauline Armour, Maxine Edwards, Patrick Neylan, Andrew Newbon, Tom Dignum, Alison Green, James Strange, Ross Holland and Donna Dawson, playing multiple roles, comprise the rest of a strong cast. Pauline Armour has, perhaps, the most difficult task, portraying four-star General Colin Powell, US Secretary of State. Less comfortable as a career soldier, she grounds her performance as the honest broker, trying to balance personal integrity with national loyalty when selling to the UN a cause in which Powell had grave doubts.

It feels unfair to single out individuals, given the production’s emphasis on the ensemble. However, I particularly enjoyed Patrick Neylan’s wolfish Wolfowitz; James Strange’s epicurean Dominique de Villepin; and Andrew Newbon’s Hans Blix, bemused by through-the-looking-glass Washington politicking. Newbon also finds a surprising amount of humour in Jack Straw; not a politician hitherto known for comedy.

For a UK audience, the figure of greatest controversy will always be Tony Blair, portrayed with skill and nuance by Alison Green. She eschews verbal and physical tics to foreground his actions. Principle merges imperceptibly into hubris and a messianic belief that he can change the world for the better. The dangers of this are clearly understood by Hare (and understood at some cost, given his sympathy with the New Labour project). Intriguingly, the character that gives voice to these dangers is Dick Cheney. Morally bankrupt he might be, but on occasion the devil is right.

As the clock ticks down towards war, a palpable momentum is achieved, aided by immersive sound and multi-media design from Rob Widdicombe and lighting by Emma Christmas. Theatricality is held in restraint – again, so as not to distract from the text – except in a rendition of Amazing Grace from Maxine Edwards that succeeds in being both beautiful and chilling. Otherwise, this is a mundane world in which small, random decisions based on ideology, blind prejudice and even blinder hope have domino-like consequences, coalescing to the point of a sword.

At the beginning of my review, I wrote that I couldn’t always believe the words spoken by Hare’s characters. The great tragedy of Stuff Happens is that the most unbelievable words are those that are true.