A couple of years ago, in my day job, I found myself having to chase a junior Defra Minister up a flight of stairs at an event (don’t ask).
This fact stands out in my memory mostly because I was low key amazed at how quickly he had ascended said stairs, physical fitness hardly being a prerequisite for a Ministerial career. A subsequent Google stalk shone some light. He was an ex-military man with what I think you can charitably describe as an obsession with walking (trekking across the mountains of Afghanistan for fun is obsession in my book) and a fascinating career which included a spell as de facto governor of a province of post-war Iraq; Rory Stewart (for it was he) was and is not your average junior Minister.
Stewart’s time in Iraq is the subject of a self-penned booked, Occupational Hazards, which has now been adapted for the stage and is playing at the Hampstead. It tells the story of the failure of British and American forces in the southern Maysan province to ‘win the peace’ as they try and rebuild after the devastation of the most recent Iraq war. Any and all views on that war aside, it’s an absolutely fascinating piece.
On adaptation duties is Stephen Brown who has done a fantastic job with what must be a messy source, in that Stewart’s book isn’t a simple chronologically arranged story. Brown has taken key scenes from the book and whipped them into a timeline of key episodes, judiciously cut the number of characters with many becoming fictionalised accounts of real people and, at the apparent suggestion of director Simon Godwin, used the character of Stewart himself as a narrator, directly addressing the audience throughout as well as acting as a character in the drama. The latter in particular is something of a masterstroke: not only does it take what is essentially a series of standalone scenes and make them feel like a real story by, literally and figuratively, filling in the gaps it also draws the audience in and makes them active observers, complicit in the action. The overall effect is to create a vital and compelling story which is hugely engaging and totally absorbing.
Quite apart from the adaptation, Brown’s script is fantastic in its own right. It’s quick, it’s wry, it’s very funny, dramatic and authentic. It has a voice of its own, as well as communicating Stewart’s. There are some eminently quotable passages - “It’s democracy. Everyone is equally unhappy. That’s how the system works.” - peppered throughout. It really grasps the audience from the first moment to the last. And, crucially, at no point does it become an issue play. Occupational Hazards isn’t about whether the Iraq war was right or wrong or who is to blame that the aftermath was so badly handled, it just tells a fascinating story without implying judgement. Some people won’t, but I love it all the more for that.
Simon Godwin, who regular readers will know is one of my absolute faves, adds considerable directorial nouse to proceedings. Dispensing with the Hampstead’s normal elevated end on stage, Occupational Hazards is presented on a floor level thrust stage. Actors enter and exit using the auditorium doors and some key pieces of dialogue are delivered, at least in part, from the auditorium. The action is quick, scenes are short and the whole piece is full of movement to avoid (about 90% successfully) the issues with blocking and audibility that are inherent in this sort of stage-audience arrangement. The design is sand coloured, made up of sliding walls and screens (a Hampstead trademark) with a clever and sparing use of projection and an evocative soundtrack. It’s a staging that really works and really, really works when combined with Brown’s whip sharp writing.
It really, really, really works thanks to an extremely strong ensemble, many playing multiple parts. The characters Brown has included are an eclectic bunch who really effectively show off the diversity of views and motivations not just between the British and Americans on the one hand and the Iraqis on the other, but between all of the characters as individuals. The cast work hard to do justice to this plurality and it pays off. Silas Carson as charismatic tribal leader Karim is a highlight, bringing real menace, gravitas and a touching weariness to proceedings. But it’s Henry Lloyd Hughes’ Rory Stewart who is the cream of the crop. Barely off stage at all, after wandering in through the audience and beginning with a ballsy direct address to introduce the story, he works extraordinarily hard and delivers a performance that is charismatic, energetic and detailed. He picks up many of the real life Stewart’s mannerisms and speech patterns without ever veering into impersonation and some of his delivery is really outstanding; a favourite being the beautifully quiet and perfectly timed final syllable in the line, “Like any right thinking person I’m suspicious of Powerpoint”. He really makes Stewart a character for the audience to root for, regardless of whether or not you agree with his actions or his point of view. It’s a superb performance.
If it’s not obvious, I really rated Occupation Hazards. It’s one of the most engaging and interesting pieces of theatre I’ve seen this year (and one with the most tickets still available during the run, unfairly). Regardless of your politics, your views on Iraq or indeed on Stewart himself, it’s one to make the effort to catch.
Occupational Hazards is at the Hampstead Theatre until June 3rd.