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Monday, July 25, 2005

Stuff Happens

Powerful and effective political theatre is a rarity in the 21st century. Ironic really, considering the tumultuous times in which we live. David Hare's Stuff Happens changes all that. Recently opened in Sydney (with Melbourne to come), I saw the play with my partner last week.

Hare constructs the political machinations behind the Iraq war, the extremism and cynicism of the Bush administration and the pathetic Tony Blair, shown as a desperate leader determined to stay on the good side of Bush, whatever the cost. Hare has not simply constructed an anti-war piece (though the underlying tone is most certainly against the conflict), but rather looks at the backgrounds, motivations and lies spun by the major players.

Condoleezza Rice - played brilliantly by Leah Purcell in brightly coloured power suits, shoulder pads and almost robotic carelessness - is an academic ideologue, like so many in the American administration. No experience of war or its consequences (nor proper planning for the post invasion phase), Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Bush himself (a simple, quasi-religious idiot with savvy political skills) plan a "War on Terror" without any understanding of American power or its limitations, let alone legality.

When the play opened in London last year, the Guardian praised its insights (the paper even gathered "experts" to determine its accuracy). Hare does ask whether the ends justifies the means and comes down on the side of "no." The facts allow no other answer.

Stuff Happens is moving and angry but has faults. Colin Powell is portrayed as the somewhat idealistic moral centre, determined to avoid war yet unsure how to achieve his aims. Sadly, his so-called idealism did not lead him to resign and his infamous presentation before the UN in February 2003 to "prove" the American case was a classic case of deception. His subsequent comments suggest that he probably knew this at the time or at least had major doubts over the intelligence he was sharing with the world. At one point in the play, he says of Saddam, "People keep asking, how do we know he's got weapons of mass destruction? How do we know? Because we've still got the receipts." Of course, those weapons never materialised.

Australia's role in the invasion is mentioned in passing. A similar piece from an Australian perspective would be most welcome. Stephen Sewell, writer of the stunning "Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America", said in 2003 that mainstream theatre spaces in Australia were unwilling to take risks on edgy political theatre. Most contemporary theatre produced by organisations such as the Sydney Theatre Company, he said, "lacked any social significance", producing only 'fruit-on-the-head' theatre. "I am being blocked, have been for some time, because I don't fit into their agendas, which is to reinforce their audience's beliefs."

As an irregular theatre-goer in Sydney, the distinct lack of contemporary, political commentary is striking (Hannie Rayson's Two Brothers may be worthy but it's as subtle as a sledge-hammer.)

Stuff Happens matters. The title refers to comments made by Rumsfeld in the face of widespread looting after the fall of Saddam. "Stuff happens ... and it's untidy, and freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things."


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