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Stuff Happens

David Hare
Lyttelton Theatre (National)

Alex Jennings in the 2004 production Credit: Ivan Kyncl
The 2004 Cast of Stuff Happens Credit: Ivan Kyncl
Nicholas Farrell in the 2004 production Credit: Ivan Kyncl

In 2004, this Verbatim piece about the War on Terror was regarded as a form of docudrama. A dozen years later, it has become an insightful historical play.

To coincide with the long-awaited publication of the Chilcot Report into the British conduct in the allied invasion of Iraq, the National commissioned a star-filled, one-off rehearsed reading directed by the playwright.

The timing inevitably led to a number of wry laughs during the pacy three-hour performance.

On reviewing Stuff Happens first time around, this critic concluded that it was worthy but much of the material was too familiar, having been constantly in the news for most of the previous year. He also predicted that it might come across better given the distance of time and that is undoubtedly the case.

Given the knowledge that we now possess, since being enhanced by a proper analysis of Chilcot, it has great power and proves what we have recently been reminded of in the European Referendum, the innate mendacity of far too many supposedly respectable politicians.

The staging might utilise nothing more than 20 chairs and a lectern, used by narrator Bill Nighy, but that is all a wordy political play needs to make some trenchant points and debunk platitudes delivered by all and sundry.

At its centre are Alex Jennings, like several other cast members reprising his role, as that master of obfuscation George "Dubya" Bush, an almost bovine figure who seems unfamiliar even with his own language, and Julian Sands playing British premier Tony Blair.

On the American side in particular, the powers behind the throne give the impression of being far more significant than the President himself.

Stand-out performance of the night comes from Danny Sapani playing American Secretary of State Colin Powell, “the most popular man in America”. While he may occasionally have struggled to master his lines, the actor managed to inject a considerable degree of personality and feeling into his sensitive character.

To an extent, this might have been helped by some of the treatment that the decent Powell received from his supposed political allies.

Almost equally influential is Adjoa Andoh’s Condoleezza Rice, clearly a wheeler dealer who can compete with the best of them, especially the shady trio of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, respectively Nicholas Woodeson, Anton Lesser and Corey Johnson.

Further behind the scenes, the intelligence services on both sides seemed hell-bent on misleading politicians to support their own aims, in particular the invasion of Iraq and attack on the late Saddam Hussein.

As the evening develops, it became apparent that the Brits were legally bound to have far higher moral standards than their friends from across the Atlantic, while the French led by Simon Paisley Day playing Dominique de Villepain come out as the good guys.

As a result of his constitutional obligations, Tony Blair seemed genuinely perturbed at having to manipulate (or invent?) the truth when the facts were lacking, like the Americans accepting intelligence that was anything but.

This is ironic, given some of the condemnatory conclusions which Chilcot had apparently reached regarding the former British Prime Minister earlier in the day.

Sir David Hare seems to have arrived at the same place a full 12 years before the official investigation, getting very few of the major conclusions wrong.

What could easily be regarded as a tragedy at times becomes comical, especially when William Chubb playing United Nations weapons inspector, Hans Blix is given the run-around by all and sundry when he attempts to tell the truth as he sees it about the mythical weapons of mass destruction.

It is a shame that a super cast and a play that still resonates in today’s political climate should only have been given a one-off performance but those that were lucky enough to spot this late addition to the National Theatre’s programme will have been educated and challenged by the experience.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher