Man doesn’t really sort out two Iraqi provinces in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein but gives it a really good go.
This is a messy, violent, hopeless, frustrating but ultimately uplifting true story of how to negotiate the un-negotiable, how to compromise with those for whom compromise is absent from their DNA. That it ends in (relative) failure should not, this play tells us, be seen as a failure.
Rory Stewart, before becoming an MP and Minister of the Crown, walked across Afghanistan, planted 500 trees, wrote some books, did some TV work and, crucially, took on the role – almost accidentally – of Coalition Governorate Coordinator of the Marsh Arab Region of Iraq. His time in Iraq is recorded in his memoir Occupational Hazards a book that has been brought to scintillating life through Steven Brown’s dramatisation combined with Simon Godwin’s razor-sharp direction of a committed and insightful cast.
Brown cleverly seeks out the drama of what could be, frankly, quite turgid subject matter whilst Godwin sensibly employs the mantra that marks out all his work: keep it simple; let the audience in; ensure clarity; and… entertain.
Here we have factions, we have agendas, we have distrust and we have ambiguity, lots of ambiguity, ambiguity fuelled by petty rivalries and age-old disputes; there are old wounds, there are new wounds, all against the chilling backdrop of territorial killings and retaliatory kidnappings. The British army, there to keep the peace, protect the innocent and support the Governorate Co-ordinator, all have that slightly bemused aura of WTF are we doing here? Whilst we as an audience think, as the drama develops, WTF are they doing there?
Silas Carson and Johndeep More as faction leaders Karim and Seyyed are both superb in capturing the mood of the disjointed times and both have the extraordinary knack of appearing argumentative but entirely reasonable whilst displaying what to a Western eye would be considered gratuitous bloodlust which to them is just a way of life. Western culture doesn’t understand Arab culture: we may think that because some Iraqis are educated in our universities they ought to see things our way but that is never going to happen and Carson and More’s skill is, with astute prodding by director Godwin, to be able to get this across in a way that we are never able to see on Sky News or the BBC.
There’s a classy performance from Aiysha Hart as Rana: women don’t have much of a voice in this culture but Hart’s feisty and provocative portrayal shows that this has the beginnings of changing. Nezar Alderazi as Ahmed is sparky and sensitive providing some humorous moments amongst the hubris and posturing. The ensemble cast more than does justice to Brown’s empathetic script and Godwin ensures that they are gently marshalled with malleable precision – assisted by Movement Director John Ross. And drawing them all together is Rory Stewart’s character, played convincingly and with affectionate authenticity by Henry Lloyd-Hughes: Man in M&S suit promotes democracy amongst the thwabs and keffiyehs, in the heat and the dust, and won’t take لfor an answer. It’s not often that a living person is portrayed on stage: I imagine that Stewart will be mightily impressed.
Designer Paul Wills’s stark but functionally mobile set is an excellent aid to the telling of the complicated story, adorned as it is by over a dozen strip lights which flash and sizzle and crackle at key punctuation points in the narrative (Lighting by Oliver Fenwick). These moments become a physical embodiment of the scrim of constant pylon destruction and looting of copper cable as well as being a metaphorical underscoring of the sizzling, crackling flash-points that bedeck Stewart’s chronicle. And rolling-news immediacy is aided by Zakk Hein’s grainy video sequences.
Towards the end of the show, the violent demolition of the conference centre becomes an analogy for the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq. In the midst of upturned desks and scattered documents Stewart mounts a passionate defence of intervention: back in 2003, he opines, what happens if Jordan is next.? Or Syria…?
Finally, though, he has no real answer to the now united – albeit briefly – factions who say: You’re a Colonial; you’re British: you’re not an Arab: WTF are you doing here?
The message of Occupational Hazards, I would suggest therefore is: although Iraq is by no means fixed, due to the determination of Stewart and others it is better than it was. Probably.
Review by Peter Yates
September 2003. Rory Stewart, a thirty-year-old former British diplomat, is posted to serve as governor in a province of the newly liberated Iraq. His job is to help build a new civil society at peace with itself and its neighbours – an ambitious mission, admittedly, but outperforming Saddam should surely not prove too difficult…
Stephen Brown’s new play, based on Rory Stewart’s critically acclaimed memoir Occupational Hazards, tells an extraordinary story about the moral conflicts, the dangers and the comic absurdities inherent in any foreign occupation.
A HAMPSTEAD THEATRE PRODUCTION
BY STEPHEN BROWN
BASED ON THE MEMOIR BY RORY STEWART
DIRECTED BY SIMON GODWIN
Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no interval
28th April to 3rd June 2017