David Hare's latest play
is about the process leading to the invasion of Iraq. It's also a docu-drama for the stage. 'Nothing in the narrative,' the programme declares, 'is knowingly untrue'. That's not to say there's no fiction in it--the play mixes verbatim dialogue from speeches and press conferences with dramatisations of events that, though they may be known to have happened, nevertheless happened behind closed doors.
Watching it is an interesting experience. Some people, no doubt, have carried a detailed knowledge of the international politics of the last four years in their heads the whole way; most of us, I suspect, have not. We forget things, or miss things. So, despite the fact that Stuff Happens
contains nothing new, it's still instructive to see the events that led to the invasion of Iraq all laid out as one narrative. It's a simplification, inevitably, but it's not simplistic, and that's not a meaningless distinction--if some details are left out, the whole sill conveys a convincing impression of the intracacies, interconnectedness and inertia of global diplomacy.
It's also fascinating to watch on a technical level. Most of the cast is present on the Olivier's round stage for most of the length of the play, Two or three or six or a dozen of them will step forward for any given scene; the rest will watch silently, seated on chairs around the stage edge or standing to imitate a White House press pack. You barely notice scene changes, and the story moves forward without pause, jumping from Bush to Blair to Blix and back again with remarkable agility. Often one actor will step forward and provide framing narration, dates and places and general context for the remarks we're about to hear. Many of the performances capture the tics of their real-life counterparts with impressive accuracy. Jack Straw's thankless job of being wheeled out to explain Donald Rumsfeld's remarks, for instance, steals more than one scene (and it's remarkably freeing to be given license to laugh at the more absurd moments, in a way that you can't let yourself do on a day-to-day basis).
The play does not try to convince sceptics of either political stripe of their wrongheadedness. If you are anti-war, the breathtaking aggressiveness of Paul Wolfowitz will probably horrify you as much as it does in real life; if you are pro-war, Cheney and Rumsfeld's arguments for the protection of America and American values will probably still convince you. Almost everyone comes out looking as bad as everyone else--the French, for instance, having the undoubted moral high ground, arrogantly waste it by playing for too much, too clumsily.
The flipside of this is that only once or twice do we see something approaching characterisation, as opposed to representation. It's there most notably in Colin Powell, whose desperate, frustrated, futile attempts to avert war--not knowing that the highest levels of his administration have decided it's inevitable--are genuinely sympathetic. Bush, by contrast, is little more than the caricature of popular culture, and the play's take on Blair is less critical than some might hope. In public it's the story we know; in private he doesn't doubt the rightness of the ends, but is frustrated with the way the means are panning out in a way that Bush just isn't. One is left with the impression that his major error, from which all other errors flowed, was (and is) a dogmatic committment to supporting US policy.
I doubt very strongly that this is a play for the ages; but as a product of this time, our time, it's an involving document, and worth seeing if you can.
The Guardian has interesting commentary here