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The stuff of reality, not dreams

David Hare's 'Stuff Happens' is the latest politically relevant drama to hit London.

September 15, 2004|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — At a certain point in award-winning British playwright David Hare's newest political drama, based on the real characters and real events of the recent past, the audience is left aghast at the unreality of what is historically true.

The United States is attacked. The chief author of those attacks escapes into the mountains. And the U.S. president, with Britain in tow and much of the rest of the world opposed, launches a costly war upon an entirely different nation, based on suspicions and assumptions that later prove to be mostly unfounded.

But it would be an injustice to "Stuff Happens," which opened over the weekend to appreciative reviews at London's Royal National Theatre, to cast it as another simplistic anti-Iraq war or anti-President Bush rant made for this hyperventilated political season.

In fact, Hare's Bush (very convincingly re-created by Alex Jennings) comes off better than one might expect, the validity of the war in Iraq after the Sept. 11 attacks is not wholly disputed, and each major player in the drama -- the 45 or so real-life characters include Dick Cheney, weapons inspector Hans Blix, Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair's ex-spinmeister Alastair Campbell -- at some point has something valid to say.

Hare's play is part of a trend in London for politically relevant drama that includes the Triangle's "Guantanamo," about the U.S.-run prison camp there; the Riot Group's "Pugilist Specialist," about a government assassination squad; and Tim Robbins' "Embedded," about journalists' experience in the Iraq war.

The plays have met a ready audience. "Stuff Happens" already has the earmarks of a must-see, with the box office saying it is already sold out for the next six weeks.

"Stuff Happens" takes its name from the words that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld uttered on April 11, 2003, when asked about the looting in Baghdad after Saddam Hussein had fled.

As the title implies, stuff does happen -- because some people want it to, others are ineffectual to stop it and still others are blind to the outcomes that follow from their imperfectly thought-out choices and decisions.

As the playwright observes in the show's opening lines: "The Inevitable is what will seem to happen to you purely by chance. The Real is what will strike you as purely absurd."

Hare, 57, considered a national treasure of British theater for years, frequently takes up current issues and critically examines British institutions, such as British Rail in "The Permanent Way" and the Church of England in "Racing Demon."

Though he has declined interviews, Hare has written that he intended this to be a "history play, which happens to center on very recent history."

Many of the words chosen are verbatim from the public statements of the characters; others imagined by Hare are based on what he said was extensive research.

"What happened happened," he says, in what seems to be a preemptive defense against any partisan objections to the play. "Nothing in the narrative is knowingly untrue."

In Hare's drama, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell (Joe Morton) serves as the man in the middle -- a weak counterbalance within the administration to the hawkish trio of Rumsfeld (Dermot Crowley), Cheney (Desmond Barrit) and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz (Ian Gelder). Alone among Bush's advisors, Powell has experienced war and is alert to the price -- as opposed to only the potential rewards -- of military engagement. Dogged and slow to anger, he is torn between his doubts about the war and his desire to be part of the team.

As secretary of State, Powell has the unenviable task of persuading Bush that it is worthwhile to go to the United Nations and keep diplomatic options open. On uncertain ground at the White House, he nevertheless is the spearhead in New York to win over members of the U.N. Security Council. For most of the play, he wants to avoid invading Iraq. But when forced to choose, he buys in.

Bush does not appear in this play as the ignoramus caricature of his more virulent critics. In Hare's portrayal, the U.S. president dominates those around him and is untroubled by self-doubt -- steeled by religious conviction to not question himself or his purpose.

He opens Cabinet meetings with a prayer and at Camp David his wife, Laura (Isla Blair), asks the government leaders and their assistants to sing a hymn. They all join together in "Amazing Grace," led by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice (Adjoa Andoh).

Bush wears his power as easily as the flight suit on that aircraft carrier. "I don't have to explain things," he says at one point. "That's the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody has to explain to me why they say something. But I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation."

When necessary, he puts Rumsfeld or Powell or Blair in his place. In the end, he gets what he wants and sleeps well at night. It is for others to bear the consequences.

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