In 2003, shortly after the American invasion of Iraq, Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld publicly shrugged off the chaotic images of looting and pillage in Baghdad. “Stuff happens,” he declared, “and it’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”
British playwright David Hare set out to correct the notion that things just somehow “happen.” In Stuff Happens, getting its Vancouver premiere at the Firehall, Hare recreates in overwhelming detail the road to war, from 9/11 to Iraq, and the people who made it all happen, their choices, their crimes, their bad things.
They are George W. Bush (Glen Cairns) and his inner circle of advisors, Rumsfeld (William B. Davis) and Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (David Adams), VP Dick Cheney (Kevin McNulty), Secretary of State Colin Powell (William Taylor) and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice (Catherine Lough Haggquist), plus Tony Blair (Michael Grant Elliott). Other key players include UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (Alvin Sanders), arms inspector Hans Blix (Fred Galloway), French Foreign Affairs Minister Dominique de Villepin (Parnelli Parnes), and a host of smaller roles played by Kevin Loring, Barbara Ellison and Luke Day.
The tone is dark black comedy. Although much of the dialogue is taken verbatim from public speeches, Hare invents the conversations inside the White House. Kicking around ideas about what to call their response to 9/11, the Bush cabinet comes up with War on Terror. “That’s good,” says Rumsfeld, “that’s vague. It means we can do anything.”
The style isn’t quite Saturday Night Live: the actors mimic some of the vocalisms and body language of these public figures but they don’t “do” the characters the way Tina Fey does Sarah Palin. Cairns’ Bush comes closest to caricature but even he grows more terrifyingly human as the lies and manipulations constructed by these fanatics—Adams’ Wolfowitz and McNulty’s Cheney most vividly—build slowly toward the inevitable outcome.
Of the primary perpetrators, Powell and Blair come off best (although Elliott’s excellent Blair is pretty weasly), appearing as reasonable, intelligent men forced by Machiavellian ideologues to take positions they don’t really support. Powell could be the tragic hero if he weren’t so long-winded. The most powerful and moving character in this three-hour epic is an unnamed Palestinian played by Loring, who sums up his people’s view of the invasion in about 30 seconds.
Ultimately, Hare gets bogged down in the minutiae of his story and much of Donna Spencer’s ambitious Firehall production feels ponderous. Too much stuff happens, and it happens too slowly. But it’s essential that we remember who made it happen, how and why.