BWW Review: OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS, Hampstead Theatre
Rory Stewart is one of those people who give Tories a good name. Like a Robust Christian (we'll come back to that later), he is both a man of action and a man of intellect, the package harnessed to a fearfully iron will but tempered by humility.At 30, having already built a glittering career at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and walked through Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, India and Nepal, he pitches up in chaotic post-Saddam Iraq and offers his services to the Coalition Provisional Authority. He is made Deputy Governorate Co-Ordinator in Maysan Province - the way men such as he were in colonial times - and later writes a memoir about his experiences. Stephen Brown adapted the book for this play.
So far, so good. Henry Lloyd-Hughes gives us an almost infinitely patient Stewart, learning on the job, all bright-eyed idealism, optimism and decency. And, for a while, it works, as things get done and structures emerge, physically and politically. He surrounded by colourful characters - rich pickings for any playwright - Silas Carson's proud leader of the March Arabs, Karim, and Johndeep More's scheming cleric, Seyyed Hassan, the standouts. A word too for Paul Wills, whose set is bleak, yet strangely warm, a home albeit a hostile one.
But it's easy to see why the play fails to reach its potential. All-through at about 100 minutes, it's hurried, lacking in nuance and contemplative moments. The factions shout at each other, but we don't really know why - megaphone politics is the only kind we see.
Stewart has his doubts, but they're never explored - he's just too busy getting things done. Perhaps most disappointing, despite a very impressive programme full of background and history, the Iraqis are stuck at the caricature stage, cartoons of emotions and ideologies, rather than rounded out human beings, reduced to little more than illustrations of the impossibility of imposing democracy on people who will not compromise. The endless name-calling - yes, the robust Christian type was called a Crusader - drowns out subtleties of motivation and response.
As such, the play feels like a missed opportunity, limited by Stewart's viewpoint rather than expanding upon it. That said, it did make me want to read the source book and it did make me glad that there are men and women like Stewart who try - even if they don't succeed.
Occupational Hazards continues at The Hampstead Theatre until 3 June.
Photo Marc Brenner