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September 22, 2004

Stuff Happens - David Hare

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

David Hare's Stuff Happens
National Theatre, London
Olivier Theatre
September - November 2004

"Stuff happens" was Donald Rumsfeld's insouciant reply to journalists agitated about the looting in Baghdad after it fell to American forces in 2003. At the end of David Hare's docudrama, the spokesman for the sufferings of Iraq describes it as "the most racist remark he's ever heard", but I didn't understand why. Rumsfeld had put the looting in the context of American riots, which might have assimilated Iraqis to black Americans. Or perhaps the spokesman thought that the remark was a contemptuous way of saying that it doesn't matter what happens to Iraqis. Both interpretations are implausible, so I am left in the dark. But my impression of the whole docudrama was that David Hare was floating along on the connotative aspect of words, their buzz or atmospherics rather than using words precisely. A spokeswoman for the Palestinians expresses her indignation at Western attitudes, which culminates in describing her people as "the Jews of the Jews". I had a little trouble with this rhetoric as well.

Am I being unfair to Hare? There's no doubt that in many ways this is a brilliant piece of work, in which a mass of material has been shaped to a narrative in which the men in the news turn into interesting stage characters. The familiar tale is salted with vivid characterisations. Bush at least is not the buffoon of left wing caricature, and stands back from the opinions around him till he makes a decision. Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz are three ugly brothers with a tendency to rant. Colin Powell stands out as the rational man in this gallery, and Condolezza Rice would have a case against the author for racial and gender stereotyping. The Tony Blair impersonation is quite good, though not in the same class as Rory Bremner. It is against Blair that the real animus of the drama is directed. He is presented as starting from the premiss that Britain has no real option other than to stick close to our overpowering ally, and is never released from his 'poodle' role. This gets the biggest laughs from the audience but does less credit to Hare's sense that there is in fact something more here than just a left-wing sneering exercise. The French foreign minister has a terrific scene exhibiting the French at their most French. They cut the ground from under Colin Powell's feet in his efforts to bring in the United Nations. There's no doubt that dramatically the extremists are a lot more interesting than the moderates, and that might well be a basic defect of any attempt to dramatise political realities.

For in the end, what is the point? There's great thespian skill in Stuff Happens and the control of logistics is admirable. It is however a story we know well in outline, and all that it adds consists of caricaturing the participants amusingly. Hare imagines them letting their hair down behind the scenes in the usual fashion by exploding into plausible profanities. Yes yes, Mr Hare. But what are we left with?

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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