One is barely a third of the way into “Stuff Happens,” the new David Hare play about George W. Bush, Tony Blair and the buildup to war in Iraq, before the audience is jolted into an awareness that what they’re watching constitutes that rare piece of contemporary theater that has very real — some might say shockingly real — value as news. Prime Minister Blair, in the determinedly sweaty presence of actor Nicholas Farrell, is calling on the carpet his American counterpart, played here by classically trained Brit actor Alex Jennings, who’s about the last person in the world one might have thought of as a natural stage Dubya (and turns out to be a revelation in the part).
But such incongruities take a distinct back seat to the reasons for Blair’s phone call to the Oval Office, at least as dramatized by Hare. “Just a few days ago, we found Osama bin Laden. We tracked him,” an agitated Blair informs a coolly impassive Bush. “The point is this: When we found him, our special forces received a request from the U.S. special forces. We were ordered to pull out.”
“Stuff Happens” doesn’t linger on what amounts to a historical hand grenade: The assertion, presumably corroborated by the extensive homework done for this play by Hare and a full-time professional researcher, that the British had bin Laden within their grasp, only to be told to let him go by the Americans, who wanted the glory of capture for themselves.
During such passages, there’s no doubt about the essential nature of a genuine event that isn’t quite a play but is clearly more than a lecture. If for no other reason than its ability to fillet a complex sequence of headlines into a narrative spanning three sustained, surprisingly ideologically even-handed hours, “Stuff Happens” transmits an electricity through the auditorium of something truly happening: Not in years have I been so conscious of an audience conspicuously leaning forward, so as not to miss any of the “stuff.”
Hare’s play is the last in the National Theater’s second annual £10 Travelex season, which has once again offered something for everyone. As proof, consider the dizzying bedfellows made possible by repertory, which finds Desmond Barrit playing both a sneakily silent Dick Cheney in the Hare play — and when this Cheney does talk, watch out! — as well as Pseudolus in the NT’s concurrent revival of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”: comedy tomorrow, tragedy tonight!
But any fears that Hare was prepping a drearily predictable sermon turn out to be unfounded. It’s impossible to guess what “Stuff Happens” will say to auds in 10 years or even five, but there’s no denying its skill at anatomizing a uniquely Anglo-American realpolitik. And that in itself would be scary enough as it is, even without Donald Rumsfeld’s notorious remark (“Stuff happens!”) from April 2003 to raise the curtain on Hare’s investigation into our fractured, fractious times in which seemingly the only thread binding us all together is one of fear.
“Stuff Happens” will be no substitute for those who prefer their drama refracted through the prism of art — in the way that, say, Michael Frayn does in his similarly historically themed “Democracy,” in which a once-divided country (Germany) is intriguingly set against its two leading characters’ divided selves. Hare, by contrast, finds no comparable metaphor on which to draw, which risks reducing this new play’s narrative to a set of “and-then-he-said’s.”
But perhaps it’s unfair to expect a play clearly born in white heat — director Nicholas Hytner announced the project before Hare had written a word — to have the forcefulness and shape of the same writer’s masterful “Racing Demon,” a drama similarly marinated in loss. Within the Travelex context, “Stuff Happens” is plainly this year’s equivalent to 2003 season opener “Henry V,” an earlier work about a recalcitrant citizenry led into a war that also involved not a little tough talking with the French.
How does a (mostly) British cast of 22 portray the Bush White House?
With considerably more respect, as it turns out, than is reserved for Blair. Of all the portraits of the U.K. leader on local stages and TV shows in recent times (and there have been a lot, notably Michael Sheen’s outstandingly beady turn in “The Deal”), Farrell’s is the most unforgiving as far as presenting a moral crusader who is consistently humiliated, betrayed and cut out of the decision-making by the White House, only to find himself butchered and belittled on home turf.
Not all the Americans ring true, though for different reasons. Adjoa Andoh in no way suggests the forbiddingly preternatural poise of Condoleezza Rice, who, on the evidence of Andoh’s perf, would seem to have spent most of her time in office with one hand on her hips (that is, when she isn’t singing “Amazing Grace” as testimony to a shared belief in God that’s just one of the many bonds between her and Bush).
The cast’s lone American thesp, Joe Morton, brings plenty of fire and passion to his depiction of a Colin Powell whose statesmanship is destined to fall on deaf presidential ears. But for all Hare’s protestations that “nothing in the narrative is knowingly untrue,” it’s hard to square the commandingly stoic Powell of public record with the slightly built, shouting Powell of the play, who is reduced to castigating “the right-wing nutcases” he works alongside. If those are his thoughts, why hasn’t Powell simply resigned?
One might have expected Hare, as a dramatic leftist of long standing, to tilt his play entirely toward Powell’s stance, and it is in this regard that “Stuff Happens” most engenders surprise. It’s not just that all points of view are considered, including those from the pro-war camp (though it’s too bad a closing hearing from the Iraqi side is among the play’s flattest passages). Beyond the bin Laden bombshell, it’s Jennings’ shrewd, self-contained Bush that keeps the audience bristling. Forsaking the easy-laugh-getting option of Dubya as goofball, Jennings locates the steeliness behind an aw-shucks swagger that’s capable of conveying volumes with just the word “yeah.”
It’s to Hare’s eternal credit that one understands anew how Bush became president, even if the play makes it equally clear that a man so in thrall to a God-given power probably isn’t going away anytime soon.