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Stuff Happens ... in LA

David Hare's play about Blair, Bush and the Iraq invasion received its US premiere this week. How did it go down? By Rob Kendt

Thursday June 9, 2005
The Guardian

There has to be a name for this noise: something between a jeer and a snicker, a gasp and a murmur. More telling than outright applause or laughter, it is unmistakeably the sound of an audience absorbing a play, rather than simply reacting to it.

We heard a lot of that curious noise at the American premiere of Stuff Happens this week at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. David Hare's dramatised account of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq also drew its share of hisses, spontaneous ovations, relieved laughter and intent silence.

In Hare's play, the caricatures of the players we think we know all too well - George Bush, Tony Blair, Colin Powell and the rest - talk back, often stirringly, against our first impressions. When a dyspeptic Dick Cheney (Dakin Matthews) excoriates the world-changing idealism of Blair (Julian Sands), positing instead American security as his sole concern, we're momentarily hushed into weighing which justification for war is more troubling. When a pair of mincing French diplomats visit Condeleezza Rice (Lorraine Toussaint) to announce that they're scrapping diplomatic efforts to save Gallic face, we can't help but share Rice's shock at their naked self-interest.

To the play's mass of mostly familiar documentary material, Hare brings an imposing dramatic architecture. He frontloads the play with pro-war voices and rationales, and captures the momentum of inevitability that pervaded those terrible months in late 2002 and early 2003. At the same time he sets up this house of cards for a hubristic fall in a devastating second act. After a rapid-fire conclusion that has the Bushies running away unapologetically from their stated casus belli , weapons of mass destruction, Hare closes with an Iraqi exile (Jay Harik), as appalled by the invasion as by Saddam's reign of terror, stating: "A country's leader is its own fault."

Taking Hare's play directly from its National Theatre debut last autumn is something of a coup for Mark Taper Forum artistic director Gordon Davidson, who's leaving the post after this season, and for whom Hare's play makes a fitting farewell. Davidson has led the Taper for nearly four decades with a commitment to politically engaged work, from the Vietnam protest play The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (which famously had FBI agents sniffing around the theatre) to Zoot Suit and Twilight, Los Angeles 1992.

Davidson's production of Stuff Happens is taut and involving, taking full advantage of the Taper's intimate in-the-round stage to bring the actors out front, and subtly implicating us in scenes set in Congress, the UN, and various press briefing rooms. American critics have been mostly enthusiastic of Hare's play, though many have questioned its neutrality. "Leave it to the vocal peanut gallery [an Americanism meaning ill-informed people in the cheap seats] to deliver the obligatory standing ovation, the hisses and the cheers that Stuff Happens - a by no means neutral play - proclaims not to be courting but probably is," wrote Evan Henerson in the LA Daily News. "Stuff Happens is not a diatribe, exactly," continued Henerson, "but it's hardly an unbiased docudrama, either."

In the Hollywood Reporter, Jay Reiner compared Hare's strategy with the warmongering tactics he portrays, writing that: "The playwright had his mind made up well in advance about these people and their motives - and then did his best to disguise this with a thin veneer of objectivity and ideological evenhandedness ... In this sense, the play is much like the political drama it pretends to explore."

Variety's Joel Hirschhorn admired the play as a "deeply felt, rigorously researched reminder of governmental manipulation and ineptitude", though he found the "repetitive" second half began to "feel like a series of bulletins issued at board meetings".

Writing for the Los Angeles Times, James C Taylor, the only one of our ranks who saw the production at the National in London, was able to report that Keith Carradine's performance as Bush is "finely tuned ... certainly more convincing than his London predecessor [Alex Jennings] ... and perhaps even more convincing than the genuine article.

"Many will no doubt come to the Mark Taper Forum play expecting to see Bush-bashing on a grand scale," wrote Taylor.

"But thankfully, Hare's characterisation of the 43rd president of the United States is unique among current portraits, fictional or otherwise. The playwright chooses not to demonise or lionise him. Rather, Hare shrewdly depicts George W Bush as a man whose power derives simply from the stubbornness of his convictions (regardless of their origins) and the lack of similar fortitude on the part of those who oppose him."

Registering the only strong dissent was the LA Weekly's Steven Mikulan, who labelled it "less a play than a timeline" and found that "after three hours you don't know which to despair about more - the imperial direction of our foreign policy or Hare's declining powers as a scenarist".

Our exposure to Hare's work, in LA at least, has been glancing: Davidson's Center Theatre Group brought us Racing Demon and Skylight, and a small local company called Theatre 40 offered a bracing reading of The Secret Rapture years ago. Stuff Happens is something altogether different, the first significant dramatic narrative about the Iraq war in any medium, deposited on the very doorstep of the fabulists of Hollywood.

It is shaming to report, in fact, that no American playwright, let alone filmmaker, has yet attempted anything close to its scope or acuity. We have seen Tim Robbins's brittle agitprop revue, Embedded, whose main achievement was to prove that Robbins should stick to acting and offstage activism. And of course there was Fahrenheit 9/11, a sui generis blast of American bluster that no one could accuse of undue circumspection.

Perhaps it takes a dramatist from the erstwhile empire that gave the world Shakespeare and Shaw to remind us of the uniquely immediate voice that theatre can raise in the discourse about central questions of the age - not least because it invites us to add our own buzzing soundtrack of real-time reactions to the mix.

· Stuff Happens is at the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, until July 17. Box office: (00 1) 213-628 2772

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