When David Hare’s searing docu-drama, Stuff Happens, premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2004 it was quickly hailed for its depth and insight into what was then the still unfolding saga of deception and military adventurism that resulted in the failed Bush policy in Iraq. Like many of Hare’s plays (Plenty, A Map of the World, Pravda) it soon entered the international repertoire. When Studio 180 mounted the show in March of 2008 at the 284 seat Berkeley Theatre in Toronto, it quickly became the hit of the season with sold out performances for the length of the run. It was subsequently mounted in Vancouver in the fall of that same year by the Firehall Arts Centre in a production directed by Donna Spencer. The Studio 180 production has now been brought to the mainstage of the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto by Mirvish Productions who programmed it as part of their 2009-2010 subscription series.
The question is — with this much distance between the actual events in question and the play’s transfer to a much larger venue (the show plays through Dec. 23) — do the machinations and deceptions of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Blair and a large assortment of cohorts and supporting players — still have resonance for a theatre going audience?
Sadly, the answer is still yes. Perhaps more so today than when the play was originally written as the Obama administration so cavalierly ignores a legacy of torture, destruction and “collateral damage” (the term given to civilian and non-combatant deaths and injuries) as they ramp up the misadventure and prepare to double down in Afghanistan. The players may change but the playbook remains the same.
Joel Greenberg’s Studio 180 production of David Hare’s play continues to receive rave reviews. The praise is well deserved coming as it does at a time when our collective memory fades as to how the U.S. got Canada into Afghanistan in the first place. Stuff Happens (which takes its title from the cynical riposte made by then Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, to the international press on the consequences of war) reminds us.
David Hare’s work is often accused of sacrificing drama for polemics. In Stuff Happens, he shows us why that’s not really a bad thing. Argument, debate, and controversy between protagonists and antagonists and the many that fall in between makes for great political theatre. And Hare’s prolific career hasn’t hesitated to take on the church, political parties, the press, and the law with an issue that starts locally and then quickly moves off into the world at a brisk pace.
As the playwright assembles all of the usual suspects to debate the pros and cons of toppling the government of Saddam Hussein, we could easily fall into a sketch from Saturday Night Live. George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair, George Tenet, Hans Blix, Jack Straw and the list goes on to about 25 principals, who engage our attention, argue their points and ultimately lead the U.S. into a tragedy so morally debased that it should almost be played as farce or parody.
It is here that Greenberg’s firm directorial hand guides the actors and counsels against caricature in favour of cogency. In the end, this approach is all the more frightening because we realize — more so now in retrospect — that these folks firmly believed that the big bamboozle was absolutely necessary. When George Bush tells us that God told him it was OK, we know that this is no laughing matter. He really believes that He told him to do it.
But what really makes the production work is that one of the greatest scams in history — “weapons of mass destruction,” “Saddam Hussein is a leader in Al Qaeda,” “foreign troops will be greeted as liberators” — is told in glorious detail by such an outstanding cast of actors. Although physical resemblance is not absolutely necessary, it certainly helps when playing contemporary personalities that are so vividly etched into our minds by television and in this respect the casting is spot on. Although Michael Healey does not bear the same physical resemblance to George Bush that his predecessor, Barry Flatman, did in the original production, he nails the persona of the man, allowing us to feel up close and personal — and it’s disturbing when we do. David Fox is a dead ringer for Rumsfeld as is Andrew Gillies angst ridden Tony Blair. The enigmatic Condoleezza Rice is played with a cloying savoir faire by Karen Robinson, while the multi-talented Sam Kalilieh, Mark McGrinder and Sarah Orenstein play a variety of supporting roles. Nigel Shawn Williams tees off as a noble Colin Powell and really anchors this foundering ship of state. The fact that Hare decided to portray Powell as redemptible might be pushing it a bit, but I guess you have to search for some good guys within this rogues gallery of stunning ignorance, duplicity, mendacity and deceit.
One final word on the staging of the play. The script itself is long on narrative, chronology and argument, while short on stage directions. This might have defeated lesser, lazier directors by opting for a kind of full frontal to the audience to ensure that every point is drilled home. Not so with Greenberg. In a burst of creative choreography involving twelve swivel office chairs on rolling casters (aided by an inspired set design by Michael Gianfrancesco), Greenberg allows us to shift focus and point of view in an instant by the quick reversal of the chairs and their seated inhabitants almost the way a film editor would use a swipe edit to quickly change scenes. The effect is a quite remarkable game of musical chairs (without the music) in various configurations and combinations that moves the material along very nicely.
Studio 180 (with successful productions such as The Laramie Project, The Israeli Cookbook and Blackbird already under its belt) is quickly becoming Toronto’s theatre of social conscience. The good news is that stimulating theatre that reflects and engages us in the world is reaching out to an ever increasing audience.
Stuff Happens plays at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto until Dec. 23.
Robin Breon is a freelance arts journalist. Portions of this article were published previously in AisleSay.com.