BWW Review: STUFF HAPPENS, National Theatre, 6 July 2016
When Sir John Chilcot stepped up to the mic to deliver his long-awaited verdict on the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he did so calmly, steadily, but with forensic and devastating analytical precision. David Hare's STUFF HAPPENS, which beat Chilcot by 12 years, is similarly measured, mixing detailed re-enactment with behind-closed-doors speculation.
But there's no need for dramatic fireworks when the bare facts, laid out with unflinching clarity, are so enraging. Hare directs this one-off rehearsed reading, timed to coincide with Chilcot's publication, and the minimal staging only puts more focus on the bones of the piece - largely unchanged since its 2004 National premiere, but up-the-minute in corroborating insight and polite wrath.
Not that this is merely an anti-war diatribe. Charlotte Lucas's journalist marches up the Lyttelton steps to confront the (largely partisan) audience with their own possible prejudices. Is the objection to intervention, the fixation on the manner of liberation rather than liberation itself, rooted in personal dislike of or contempt for the main political players? Is it a form of luxurious western self-obsession? Would we respond to a mass-murdering dictator in Europe by debating UN procedures, as we do when Arab lives and democracy are at stake?
Yet Hare leaves you in no doubt that democracy was overridden in pursuit of religiously fuelled enforced regime change that resulted in monumental loss of life. The most chilling characterisation is that of President Bush as a man with unshakeable belief in his divine right to rule. The excellent Alex Jennings, one of several returning cast members, demonstrates that the dopey, folksy simple-mindedness is partly performance, as Bush - who begins war cabinet meetings with a prayer - declares that being President means he doesn't "owe anybody an explanation". His pre-emptive strike doctrine, he feels, only needs to be sanctioned by a higher power.
He's buoyed up by hawkish armchair generals: Cheney, who studiously avoided the Vietnam draft; Rumsfeld, keeping a beady eye on lucrative defence contracts; and Wolfowitz, who argues Iraq can be felled with "a minimum expenditure of effort", and recklessly puts the likelihood of Saddam's involvement in 9/11 at "10-50%".
Colin Powell - the only man who served - emerges as the tragic figure. Echoing Chilcot's condemnation, he declares war should be "the politics of last resort", and he's alert to America's hypocritical position as the nation that sold Saddam weapons - "we've still got the receipts". The use of force, he argues, means failure, but he eventually capitulates to a course of action he knows to be catastrophic.
As for Blair, Hare sees his form of deception as self-deception. He believes his own principle of humane military intervention, and in his level of influence over the US. Julian Sands gives us a bewildered, exasperated Blair, trying and failing to persuade Bush into at least outwardly pursuing a diplomatic solution, and sidestepping legal advice that invasion cannot be pursued without evidence of a "real and imminent threat". Disappointed by the original dossier, he latches onto a dubious source suggesting Saddam's capability for deploying weapons of mass destruction in 20 to 45 minutes.
This shaping of facts to fit a prejudiced conclusion is certainly not restricted to Iraq, and is one of several parallels that urge the swift programming of a Hare Brexit play - along with the dismissal of public opinion that contributed to today's mistrust in political systems, the ignoring of experts, rolling back on promises, linguistic elasticity, and Powell's doomed attempt to strike a UN deal that would satisfy growing unrest back home.
Among the 21 actors, narrator Bill Nighy matches Hare's occasionally sardonic, white-hot delivery, Anton Lesser is a chilling Wolfowitz, Corey Johnson a bullish Cheney, Adjoa Andoh makes Condoleeza Rice a crafty, silkily-spoken bully, Nicholas Woodeson's Rumsfeld is a gleeful opportunist, and Simon Paisley Day brings some levity with an Inspector Clouseau-esque Dominique de Villepin. As Powell, Danny Sapani has a few stumbles and tends to bellow, but is ultimately poignant as the architect of his own destruction.
As the real Blair once more enters the public arena to protest the rightness of his actions, this is a cogent reminder of the part theatre - especially our National Theatre - can play in political debate and in calling our leaders to account. Timely, gripping and vital.
Photo credit: Ivan Kyncl