By the slightly intimidating age of 30, now Tory MP Rory Stewart had worked as a soldier, a diplomat and had walked across Afghanistan on a journey that stretched over six thousand miles. Rather than put his feet up, his next move was to show up in Iraq, CV in hand, and demand a job. Occupational Hazards is Stephen Brown’s dramatization of the consequences of that decision.
Ambitious – particularly for its running time – Occupational Hazards places Henry Lloyd-Hughes’ Stewart squarely at the centre of a conflict that would prove to be one of the most fruitless of a generation. In the shiny new post-Saddam state of Iraq, the future of the Maysan province rests on resolving a struggle for power between Karim Mahmoud, a local tribal leader and preference of the occupying forces, and the increasingly powerful Seyyed Hassan, a sadrist leader with a dedicated and violent congregation. As the two men and their various supporters circle one another, Lloyd-Hughes weaves between them, empty stories about clay tablets and even emptier promises his only defence against deep seated rivalries and generations of tribal practises.
It is worth commending, first and foremost, that so convincing is Henry Lloyd-Hughes’ embodiment of Stewart that when he first bounded onto the stage I panicked that his direct address was some kind of pre-theatre shakedown for votes. His performance is a controlled blend of charm, calm and genuine empathy, and the world of the play bends to it like so much desert sand. He’s the first pretend Tory I’ve ever almost-liked. But the whole affair proves too rushed to ever allow us a moment to truly inhabit it.
Despite the use of helpful PowerPoint presentations and frequent narration, two jaunty hours is simply not enough to truly grasp the nuances of the fraught political landscape of Maysan in 2003, and the other performances suffer for it. Names, locations and skirmishes flutter past us faster than we can latch onto them, and though Brown’s adaptation pragmatically attempts to condense and clarify the action, it then starts to dance with the dreaded threat of over-simplification. A clusterfuck on this scale resists the narrative neatness Brown is so keen to apply.
There’s something appealing about the comparison of Stewart’s foolhardy attempts at parochial democracy (Ooh perhaps we could form a council!) to Maysan’s visceral reality – reminiscent of last year’s They Drink it in the Congo at the Almeida – but the comedy gleaned from their collision feels like a misstep. And if watching white men in suits explain democracy to the brown people for the tenth time isn’t enough for you, there’s the token woman to enjoy too!
My liberal misgivings aside, Occupational Hazards is a valiant attempt to grapple with the mess left behind by the invasion of Iraq. Brown has drawn a likeable and savvy protagonist in Stewart, a man who is equally enamoured by the idea of a peaceful, democratic Iraq and aware of the pitfalls of the occupation. Paul Wills’ set offers a slick backdrop for the action and though Simon Godwin’s direction struggles with pace, it’s a fairly well put together, illuminating night at the theatre.
Occupational Hazards is on until 3rd June 2017 at the Hampstead Theatre. Click here for more information.