'Is it politics or theatre?' Occupational Hazards raises questions

'Is it politics or theatre?' Occupational Hazards raises questions
Theatre: Based on the memoirs of Rory Stewart, a British politician appointed governor of an Iraqi province after the 2003 invasion, the play is thoughtful and timely, writes Hadani Ditmars.
4 min read
02 Jun, 2017
Henry Lloyd-Hughes plays Rory Stewart, appointed a provincial governor in post-invasion Iraq
"What was that, politics or theatre?" asks Henry Lloyd Hughes, playing Rory Stewart - fresh from a pivotal meeting of Iraqi politicos - in Occupational Hazards, which ends a successful run at London's Hampstead Theatre this weekend. 

It's hard to spot the difference sometimes, in this adaptation of Stewart's acclaimed 2007 memoir about his year as governor of Maysan province in southern Iraq. Disparate chapters are thrown together in an action-packed play recreating the theatre of war.

Occupational Hazards is certainly successful as a thought-provoking play that raises questions - as does the memoir itself - about the road to hell paved with good (and bad) intentions that was the Anglo-American invasion.
 Its particular focus on Stewart's roller-coaster experience as governor during the period of inter-Shia intrigue and spiralling violence that followed the heady days of initial post-invasion optimism is insightful. 

But it's less successful as a piece of theatre.

There are far too many characters and sub-plots to make it truly gel as a dramatic narrative, and often the deluge of data about real life events - heightened by televisual military maps on either side of the stage - feels more like a barrage of news stories than an engaging drama.

The Stewart character himself complains at one point of being overwhelmed by a "torrent of information" - getting up to speed on a plethora of issues from inter-tribal rivalries to the state of electricity - a sentiment the audience may well have shared.
John Mackay, Amy Cudden and Henry Lloyd-Hughes
in Occupational Hazards

That said, there are some poignant moments, notably
the memorable scene where the young Stewart persuades former anti-Saddam activists and post-invasion rivals Karim Mahood and Sadrist cleric Seyyed Hassan to (temporarily) come together.

Then there is the Oresteian drama of Mahood - the so-called "prince of the marshes" - realising he has been betrayed by the British and that his dreams of greatness have been dashed. And the scenes where Rana - a composite of several women in the memoir - expresses delighted surprise at how her NGO to train local women in the art of sewing is actually living up to its promise to empower them - and later, as she relates the trauma of a Sadrist attack on her project, are particularly touching.

As directed by Simon Godwin, the verbal sparring between Stewart - well played in all his youthful arrogance, enthusiasm and disillusionment by Hughes - and the Sadrist Hassan - given depth and dimensionality by Johndeep More - is often riveting.

And scenes that break the fourth wall - as when Stewart narrates his own story as a middle-aged man in Scotland looking back at his youthful adventures, or when his young assistant Ahmed (played with pathos by Nezar Alderazi) shares the fact that he will soon be killed by a Sadrist militia, and that George Bernard Shaw was his favourite writer - work well.

It's not easy adapting non-fiction memoirs with long descriptive passages and non-linear narratives for the theatre, and often challenging translating political events into drama
 (although David Hare - who combined verbatim transcripts with fictional scenes for his Iraq war play Stuff Happens largely succeeded). But to his credit, playwright Stephen Brown has created some well-drawn characters, especially Karim and Rana - along with some snappy one-liners.

"Thesiger was an eccentric British primitivist," Khaled, the professor of antiquities, says derisively. A ripost to Stewart's idealism is delivered, deadpan, by his colonel: "These people don't want democracy. They want to be not f**king dead."
There are some important themes explored here - among them the attempt to create democracy from an illegal invasion, questions over the validity of interventionism, and how far the NGO industry can go in failed states

Strong performances from the main characters - Lloyd-Hughes' Stewart rings true, Silas Carson's Karim captures the man, and Aiysha Hart lights up the stage as Rana - are augmented by well-acted supporting roles, especially veteran actor John Mackay as the colonel/Paul Bremer and Vincent Ebrahim who plays both the murdered police chief Abu Rashid and Khaled, the professor of antiquities rationing out drops of Johnny Walker as Sadrists chase out the last of the Christian alcohol merchants. 

There are some important themes explored here
 - among them the attempt to create democracy from an illegal invasion, questions over the validity of interventionism, and how far the NGO industry can go in failed states.

But the gravitas competes with the emotional lives of the characters. The play would have been stronger if these nuances - especially a possible romantic attraction between Stewart and Rana - had been further explored.

Still, the final, poweful, scene offers more questions than answers - as a now middle-aged, reflective, Stewart says, "We arrive, thinking we are superheroes. We leave..." His voice trails off as the stage fades to black.

One wonders what would have happened if Brad Pitt had been successful in his bid to option the memoir - as the material might have been well suited to say, a Hollywood mini-series. It will be broadcast as a radio drama on the BBC Radio 4 programme Theatre on Four on June 17.

But as Iraq veers from
 the theatre of the absurd to the grotesque, Occupational Hazards offers important and timely food for thought.

Follow Hadani Ditmars on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars