Review of 'Embedded' by Tim Robbins, Riverside Studios and 'Stuff Happens' by David Hare, National Theatre
As part of an encouraging renaissance of radical theatre, Embedded and Stuff Happens have attested to the continuing centrality of the war on Iraq in political debate. Though different in style and content, both are written from a clear anti-war perspective.
Embedded, as its title suggests, examines the way in which journalists were groomed for the war by the US army, becoming in effect part of the American military machine. Systematically fobbed off with accounts of the war favourable to the army, their reports were subject to 'script approval' by Pentagon appointees based at a centre in Atlanta. They were expected to deliver to American readers and viewers a sanitised version of the war, to sell it to the public like any marketable brand.
By showing us reporters drilled into conformity by Colonel Hardchannel, a stage-struck officer, Tim Robbins reminds us how fragile our 'democracy' is when the preservation or extension of our rulers' wealth and power is at stake. Most of the journalists responded by toeing the Pentagon line, but a heightened dramatic tension is achieved when one breaks ranks to tell the truth.
Two other strands of the montage make up the rest of Embedded - the soldiers' tales and the 'debates' of Bush's war cabinet. The soldiers are portrayed not only as state-sanctioned killers, but as victims of America's class system. There are moments of significant emotional truth: a father apologising to his daughter for having failed to escape the poverty which impelled her to join the army, a soldier who will be haunted for life by guilt at having killed an entire Iraqi family at a checkpoint. And we are shown the courage of Private Jessica Lynch, who denies the false press reports of her abduction and torture by Iraqis, insisting that an Iraqi doctor saved her life. Other soldiers write home in bafflement at their presence in Iraq. At this point, however, it would perhaps have been appropriate to sketch in the role of the anti-war movement in spreading universal doubt about the justice of the invasion.
The portrayal of the war cabinet abandons the realistic style to present us with a group of masked caricatures. This is unashamedly agitprop, but there is a missed opportunity. Within that style, would it not have been possible to explore the warped mentality at the heart of the Project for the New American Century? Nevertheless, Embedded is well staged and is a positive contribution to contemporary political theatre, with fine ensemble acting from the members of LA's Actors' Gang.
Stuff Happens is more clearly definable as docu-drama, in that it remains a play, that is, a dramatic piece with conflict and tension, but one that is without independent characters, its actors speaking lines derived from the speeches and known conversations of the leading politicians, and only partly from Hare's imagination. The title derives from Rumsfeld's notoriously dismissive response to looting in Baghdad. In a series of historically authentic scenes, Hare dramatises the main arguments and discussions between the major players in the run-up to war, their speeches aimed at preparing the British and American publics for the attack.
Moreover, he attempts to portray our leaders as rounded characters. Bush (Alex Jennings) isn't just a bumbling idiot. His personality is based on a mixture of greed, shallowness and ruthlessness, but he is also skilful and cunning. The character of Blair (Nicholas Farrell) is largely a mix of arrogance and megalomania, but Hare also presents him as a doubter. He reminds us of Blair's principal motivation, his need at all costs to cling to Bush's coat-tails so that some of the US's power and prestige would rub off onto Britain and, by proxy, onto him. This obsession with Britain punching above its weight in the world meant that the main discussions between Blair and his advisers were about how to manipulate a sceptical public into accepting the case for war rather than about whether there was a case.
The result, however, is that there is not always harmony between the documentary and dramatic elements of the play. Blair is portrayed as too agonised, too enmeshed in his own doubts, whereas his main feature was and remains his watertight conviction that going to war was the right option and his naive belief that after the war people would forget the controversy surrounding it. No doubt Hare's version makes for better drama.
Also dubious is the portrayal of Colin Powell (Joe Morton) as anti-war, a characterisation that enables Hare to develop dramatic tension between him and the other neo-cons. Now, although there was speculation at the time about his doubts, there is no evidence that Powell took any kind of stand against the invasion, so that he becomes a far more heroic figure than he deserves.
However, Nicholas Hytner's production is pacey and taut and the performances are impressive. Hopefully, both plays will intensify anger at the occupation and fuel a renewed commitment to action.