18 SEPTEMBER 2004, Page 63

Political shenanigans

Toby Young

Embedded Riverside Dumb Show Royal Court Stuff Happens Olivier

T was planning to devote this column to a 1 denunciation of political theatre. When a new play is hailed as a brilliant piece of political writing that usually means it just echoes the prejudices of its metropolitan audience. When the same play is acclaimed as 'challenging' and 'uncompromising', you can almost guarantee it's an attack on something that no one in the playwright's peer group — or any of the national critics — would dream of defending, such as the upper classes or the Conservative party. When it comes to political theatre, you can enjoy a reputation for being 'courageous' without ever taking a stand that might jeopardise your status as a fashionable playwright.

As I say, that is what I was going to write. Indeed, having seen Embedded and Dumb Show last week, I actually wrote two thirds of the column along exactly those lines, thinking I could simply add a couple of lines on Monday evening after I'd seen Stuff Happens. Embedded is an attack on the war in Iraq written by Tim Robbins, the Oscar-winning actor, while Joe Penhall. the author of Dumb Show, has managed to find a target that is even safer than America's foreign policy: the tabloid press. 'What's next for Britain and America's fearless band of political dramatists?' I was going to ask. 'An impassioned attack on racism? Another jeremiad against the nuclear family?'

Unfortunately, Stuff Happens is the real McCoy: a gripping, thought-provoking piece of political theatre. Unlike all the other plays I've seen that take issue with Bush and Blair's conduct of the War on Terror — and there've been at least half a dozen in the West End alone — Stuff Happens spends as much time making the case for the defence as it does for the prosecution. David Hare is firmly of the antiwar party, but he's taken the trouble to master the arguments of his opponents and, for that reason, Stuff Happens is immeasurably superior to Embedded, Guantanamo, The Madness of George Dubya and the rest.

We get a taste of what lies ahead about 15 minutes in when an unidentified character denounces those who condemn the war — whether on the grounds that it wasn't sanctioned by the UN, or that Saddam Hussein didn't have weapons of mass destruction, or that Bush was acting as a puppet of the oil industry — without acknowledging that an evil dictator has been overthrown. To see a character in a play directly challenge the point of view that must be shared by at least 75 per cent of the audience — and to do so with such eloquence — is quite something. This is precisely the kind of thing that I was intending to condemn contemporary political theatre for not doing. It's the difference between agitprop and drama.

Stuff Happens, as you probably know by now, is a documentary play, with actors playing real-life characters. It's an attempt accurately to recreate conversations that took place inside the White House, 10 Downing Street and elsewhere, and it's largely based on published sources, such as Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack. In essence, David Hare has taken a mountain of material and boiled it down to a riveting, three-hour docudrama about the political shenanigans leading up to the war in Iraq.

One of the most impressive things about it is that Hare rounds up all the usual suspects — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeid, Paul Wolfowitz — and forces opponents of the war to take them seriously. They start off as one-dimensional caricatures — and, needless to say, the audience howls with laughter whenever they open their mouths — and gradually metamorphose into skilled politicians. This is particularly true of President Bush, who, as played by the superb Alex Jennings, seems literally to grow in stature before our eyes. At first, we take his taciturn, non-committal style as evidence of his stupidity, but as events unfold he emerges as a magus-like figure, subtly bending everyone to his will, including Tony Blair. You get the impression that David Hare, having taken the trouble to research properly the character, has had to revise his own opinion of Bush, to acknowledge that, like so many who don't share his politics, he seriously underestimated him.

Stuff Happens can't, by any stretch of the imagination, be called a work of art. Fifty years ago, another liberal dramatist, Arthur Miller, decided to write a play condemning a right-wing American politician and produced one of the highpoints of 20th-century political theatre. Stuff Happens is not The Crucible. It won't be revived in ten years' time, let alone 100. Nevertheless, it's a marvellously entertaining tour d'horizon, a work of epic sweep that manages to contain an enormous amount of recent history within its folds, and is, by some margin, the best attack on Bush and Blair I've seen in the theatre so far.