15 December, 2004Issue 4.1Theatre

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‘Known Knowns’

Tim Markham

David Hare
Stuff Happens
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Olivier Auditorium, National Theatre
1 September – 6 November 2004

In Stuff Happens, David Hare’s new dramatic reconstruction of the political run-up to the Iraq war, Kofi Annan enters the stage as an otherworldly figure with the voice of a meditation tape (‘Imagine a pool of fresh, clear water…’). Immediately thereafter, an unnamed journalist delivers a monologue in favour of the US-led invasion of Iraq. What is remarkable about this monologue is not that the pro-war position is given such eloquent and forceful prominence. Indeed, having publicly expressed his own anti-war position many times over, here Hare is studiously balanced, though he does tend towards a pedantry which impedes narrative elegance and which momentarily echoes the Today programme’s more anxious attempts at impartiality (‘…and now thirty seconds’ airtime for the Tory spokesman’). Rather, the scene stands out because it succinctly exposes as fatuous the entire premise upon which the pro/anti- debate was founded. ‘How obscene it is’, the journalist laments, ‘how decadent, to give your attention … to the relentless discussion of the manner of the liberation … Do I like the people who did it? Are they my kind of people? … I trust Blair/I don’t. Bush is stupid/Bush is clever. This obsession with ourselves!’ In a few pithy lines, Hare reveals the narcissism which has characterised political discussion on both sides of the debate: it is, he suggests, a discourse which is topically outward-looking but which, ultimately, is overwhelmed by the influence of a popular culture that equates politics with self-identification.

This lucidity is short-lived. The play quickly reverts to what can only be described as an animated version of the Guardian: there is, to be sure, a fleeting thrill at seeing the characters of this familiar world brought to life, but it proves irretrievably insubstantial. The reliance on verbatim transcripts does lend the production a certain integrity, but, again, this alone does not justify dramatic reconstruction, nor does it easily translate into dramatic effectiveness. Hare might have played upon the superficiality of such a realist account in order to excoriate a vapid media for presenting events and people only within contrived ‘dramatic’ structures. Instead, he chooses to take that confected character template and flesh it out—which surely misses the point. Making the dramatis personae of journalism more human and sympathetic simply confirms the fiction without advancing fact. And while his particular approach to characterisation does not for the most part become easy caricature—Bush’s self-possession is more evident than his inanity, Blair is more cunning than sanctimonious—it cannot go further than impersonation. By taking as his starting point these distorted reductions of political figures, Hare can neither develop characters who are believable beyond the world of the media, nor tackle why it is that the perceived character of these people means so much to us in the first place.

That said, there are, however, strong performances from the cast, including Nick Sampson as Downing Street chief-of-staff Jonathan Powell, Adjoa Andoh as Condoleezza Rice, and a meticulous study of Blair by Nicholas Farrell. Dick Cheney (Desmond Barrit) and Alastair Campbell (Don Gallagher), meanwhile, are well-deployed as comic foils who surface for brief moments to vituperate about one political enemy or another. Alex Jennings is broadly convincing as the US president, though more could have been made of Bush’s bravado. (It is presented here as unflinching and unreflective, while the international public has witnessed that it can be much more dramatically compelling: a dynamic mediation between stimulus and response, a negotiating tool, or a means of playing for time.) Nicholas Hytner’s direction, too, is elegant and necessarily energetic. Perhaps most exhilarating are the fast-paced choreographed scenes at the UN and Congress which, as well as depicting the world of diplomacy as a heady dance, compellingly contrast those characters for whom politics is a maelstrom neither of their volition nor under their control, and those—Rice, par excellence—for whom every utterance slots into the machine with a satisfying click as the momentum of the official narrative proceeds seamlessly towards war in Iraq.

Nevertheless, the play still functions more as well-intended re-enactment than as either political critique or drama. Oddly, Hare seems to make a half-hearted attempt at the latter genre by offering up the figure of Colin Powell (Joe Morton) as the sole tragic hero , who makes a principled stand against Bush before being summarily shunted out of the decision-making process. Having scrupulously avoided pronouncing heavy-handed judgement on characters throughout, this seems an odd device. In truth, the sense is almost that Hare is forgiving Powell, and declaring him to be, finally, moral. This sits uneasily with an audience living in a world wherein discussing the morality of individual players is largely unproductive, especially as these ‘individuals’ are nothing more than vehicles through which the politics of the time are expressed. Indeed, the attempt stands in direct contrast with Hare’s earlier point, which had suggested that for us to speak in these terms is simply absurd, the peculiar consequence of reducing politics to personality. This oversight unfortunately seems representative of the play as a whole. Ultimately, and frustratingly, Stuff Happens fails to capitalise on the inherent differences between the two dramatic worlds of the news media and the theatre with convincing effect. The play remains encumbered by the dictates of the former, neither making political capital out of its finitudes nor transcending it for the sake of credibility in the latter.

Tim Markham is an Australian DPhil student in Political Theory at Lincoln College, Oxford. His thesis explores Pierre Bourdieu’s philosophy of practice and uses the case study of the political sociology of British and US war correspondents 1990-2002. Tim is also a researcher in media sociology in the Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics.