And you have to get on a plane to London to see what happens when a major writer, commissioned by the premier theater of the English-speaking world, grapples with what Royal National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner refers to as "the ill-starred Iraq adventure."
It is an adventure scripted in the mode of long-form improvisation by the Bush administration's key players. They are also the key players in "Stuff Happens," drawn with varying degrees of complexity, chief among them George W. Bush, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, plus a key, lonely Bush ally, British prime minister Tony Blair.
Hare's title comes from Rumsfeld's two-word verbal shrug, uttered in April 2003 in response to the post-occupation looting. In those words, Hare sees a telling expression of American hubris. The play itself is a cool, compelling three hours. Its impact on public discourse in England, with politicians and pundits alike assessing its impact, already has been remarkable. Hare has been compared with Shakespeare as well as Goebbels, which means he must be doing something right. Or left.
The text is drawn partly from verbatim quotes and partly from Hare's imagined closed-door conversations. They combine to relay the planning, selling and run-up of the Iraq war, as well as its perpetually shifting rationales underneath. Written in the heat and glare of current events, Hare's play may be more artfully comprehensive chronicle than inspired drama.
"Stuff Happens" lacks the beer-gut punch of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." But it's smarter. It casts a wider net. The playwright -- an Establishment leftist, the sort you find in England more readily than America -- has put his outrage to unexpectedly subtle use here.
Early on, one of various narrators in "Stuff Happens" asks: "So where to begin? To take the story back -- April 25, 1975, the unforgettable event: the fall of Saigon. At last there are limits to American power."
We meet Powell (played by the American actor Joe Morton), followed by Rumsfeld (Dermot Crowley) and his fellow Nixon White House employee Cheney (Desmond Barrit). Young Condi Rice (Admoa Andoh) takes the stage, along with Paul Wolfowitz (Ian Gelder), who is described by a colleague as not so much a hawk as a "velociraptor."
Soon Hare ushers in "a snappish young man," considered "the joke of the family": Bush the Second (Alex Jennings, doing the best furtive swagger a well-trained English actor can muster). The play heightens the contrast in President Bush's early months between the play's hero, Powell, and the neocon nest of well-pressed vipers surrounding him. If that sounds like dramatic license, Hare takes it -- too much of it, probably. Though Powell's qualms about preemptive war are well documented, the play's idealized version of Powell tells off Bush and Rice with impunity. "I want my country to be less arrogant," he thunders at one point, then arguing that the non-Iraq-related attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, shouldn't "license us to behave like idiots."
As the war looms, Hare's most intriguing and plausible square-offs between Powell and Bush leave much said between the lines, or in the thick of a pause. Bush is depicted as a watchful, cagey politician (though with a far longer attention span than some records indicate). One Hare conversation between Bush and a jumpy, defensive Blair includes this exchange:
Blair: Any war, any conceivable war, is a long way off. It isn't going to happen tomorrow. . . .
Bush: Not tomorrow, no.
This is both "realistic," which doesn't necessarily make for good theater, and good theater, which may or may not be realistic but, in this case, helps.
Hare sees the diplomat Powell as the sympathetic scapegoat. Rice, perpetually speaking for her commander in chief, is a cryptic figure of mysterious influence. "Stuff Happens" relegates Rumsfeld and Cheney to easy caricature. In one short scene, Cheney hits Hans Blix with a terse kiss-off. "Understand," he says, "we're ready to discredit you." Now and then, Hare succumbs to what might be called his inner Oliver Stone.
Along with the famous figures, "Stuff Happens" gives voice to different viewpoints by way of invented ones. The toughest speech in the play belongs to "A Brit in New York," appalled at the post-9/11 simplicities in America. "On Sept. 11, America changed," he concludes. "Yes. It got much stupider."
Earlier, however, we hear from an "angry British Journalist" who offers another angle: "Saddam Hussein attacked every one of his neighbors except Jordan. Imagine, if you will . . . a dictator in Europe, murdering his own people, attacking his neighbors. . . . Would the finer points of sovereignty detain us, before we rose, as a single force, to overthrow the offender?" Hare's point of view remains clear throughout "Stuff Happens," but he's no fool: He knows contrast lends tension to a play largely taken up with literal armchair debates.
The direct-address style employed here is akin to Hare's previous effort, "The Permanent Way," a smoothly carpentered docudrama about the disastrous privatization of British railways. In earlier plays such as "The Secret Rapture," Hare was so angry he couldn't think straight, at least as a dramatist. In the first 30 seconds of "Rapture," about the greed and heartlessness of the Thatcher years, the mean Thatcherite antagonist loots the corpse of her late father. Get it? That's how low these people will sink!
If "Stuff Happens" had taken a similar approach, it would've begun with the Bush quotation (which Hare uses later) in which he states: "I feel like God wants me to run for president. I can't explain it, but I sense my country is going to need me." Instead, Hare realizes he has more than one story to tell, and he lets Bush's born-again proclamations and moral clarities, as well as their cost, emerge gradually.
Director Hytner's staging is spare and elegant, the actors seated in a semi-circle on the stage, rising to join the debate as needed. Photographic and three-dimensional depictions of the White House, or Crawford, Texas, loom above the circular stage. Some of the acting is a bit much. Nicholas Farrell's Blair is too ham-handedly comic, Andoh's Rice lays the duplicity on a bit thickly, and the otherwise exemplary Morton lacks any indication of military bearing as Powell. But this is a generally first-rate company, clearly relishing a crack at contemporary material of no little urgency.
Would Hare have written a different play a year from now? Surely he would've come up with a better coda. When the (invented) Iraqi exile sums it all up by saying Iraq "failed to take charge of itself," it's too little, too late, letting too many off the hook. Yet this flawed but genuinely noble achievement manages a tricky thing. By the end we have heard a familiar story, one whose next chapter will be determined on Nov. 2, told lucidly and well from one overriding dramatic perspective but by many different voices. By the time the French enter the picture -- roughly in the same place they cause all the trouble in Shakespeare's "Henry V" -- Hare has set up the chess pieces. We see how one diplomatic move, or blunder, affects the next one. And the next.
"Stuff Happens" continues in repertory through Nov. 6 at the Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1. Tickets 10-25 pounds (about $20-$50) at www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or 020-7452-3000.