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As the season opener for Burning Coal Theatre Company's 2018-19 season, the company presents a play by David Hare, the British playwright who made his name by examining the mores of English society and politics. He has been writing since 1970, and has a long list to his credit, including The Power of Yes (2009), which attempts to find the reasons behind the 2008 financial crisis, and The Absence of War (1993), a study of Britain's Parliament. In this play, Stuff Happens (2004), Hare examines the events that lead the US and Britain into the Iraq War.
The show is a North Carolina premiere, directed by Lillian White, who also directed Peter Pan & Wendy for Burning Coal. The show was to have opened October 11, but nature brought us Hurricane Michael, which barreled through Raleigh that afternoon, and, in the process, took out the power for several square blocks, including the theater at the Murphey School. So, the show opened last night, Friday the 12th, with a gala reception with the cast afterward.
As with any play that deals with historical fact as its basis, some of Stuff Happens is pretty dry. As we saw many varied meetings take place in the White House during Act I, my attention began to wander. I found myself pinching my arm to stay awake. Stuff Happens runs upwards of two-and-a-half hours, and I needed to focus. Happily, Act II was a much more agile and dynamic act, bringing all the events set in motion during Act I to fruition.
Director White uses an entirely blank stage for her set, deciding to use set pieces and props to set each of her ever-changing scenes. Chairs on wheels were the most common touch; White builds an entire dance around the movement of actors and their chairs, which runs the course of the show. It is fascinating to watch. It is impossible to ignore the one static feature, and that is the Oval Office carpet depicting the US Spread Eagle, emblazoned on the floor centerstage. Another integral part of the show is a pair of banks of television screens, on opposite walls of the theater, which depict what television screens do: commercials; news feeds; persons of interest; and ultimately, a scrolling of the US Constitution, while it is marked up with boot-prints as it scrolls along.
The principal members of the show are those you would expect: George W. Bush (Michael Babbitt); Tony Blair (Matthew Baldiga); Dick Chaney (Rob Jenkins); Colin Powell (Byron Jennings); Donald Rumsfeld (Brook North); and Condoleeza Rice (Tyanna West). But these are not by any means the entirety of the cast, which runs to fifteen. Lesser characters occupy the set constantly, witnesses to the event as well as participants in it. For example, Fred Corlett plays British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook; and I would be remiss if I did not mention the appearance of CIA Director George Tenet, ably played by Julie Oliver(!).
The twists and turns this series of events goes through are legion, but the single largest snag in the Bush plan is the United Nations. Blair, who faces a populace averse to going to war, needs the support of the UN to get the English participation to be accepted by the people. Foremost in blocking the road to that support are the members of the Security Council, specifically France and Germany. France's Ambassador to the UN, Dominique de Villipin (Darius Shafa), tells the US that it will be necessary to obtain not one, but two resolutions: one to go into Iraq and look for Bush's "Weapons of Mass Destruction" (WMD's), and another if, having found them, the US decides to invade Iraq. Reluctantly, and specifically because Tony Blair asks them to, the US Administration agrees.
It is enlightening, to put it mildly, to see the intricacies and gyrations the US is willing to put itself through in order to go into Iraq. It is also interesting to see just exactly how the Administration hangs Tony Blair out to dry when they decide that they do not need to return to the UN for a second resolution. But the most interesting aspect of the entire affair is how Bush cajoles Powell into going back to the UN and lie to their faces. It might well have been a red line for Colin Powell, a bridge too far, as it were. But Powell goes, and that single act follows him all the rest of his political career, and may well have been his reason for leaving politics altogether.
It takes quite a long period of time, because the path is twisted and hazardous, but the end result is crystal clear. The US took an international force into Iraq for one reason and one reason alone: George Bush wanted to. It is possible that this is the only reason he ran for President. Ever since, under orders from Bush's father, then-president George H. W. Bush, the first Iraqi invasion stopped without going into and capturing Baghdad, GWB thought it was folly to stop there. Having 9/11 happen on his watch did nothing to deter GWB from his own single-minded ambition of killing Saddam Hussein. Osama bin Laden was of no consequence to GWB; when asked, after his announcement of "Mission Accomplished," if he knew the whereabouts of the terrorist, his reply was "I don't know, and I don't care." He might just as well have added, "I've done what I came here to do."
Stuff Happens continues at Burning Coal through Sunday, October 28. For specific dates and times, please view the sidebar.