Hampstead Theatre, London – until 3 June 2017
An electrifying moment in this sharp, riveting play sees two bitter rivals, in a moment of stillness between blood-feud brawls, shaking hands. A miraculous moment, inspired by the unity of a young Muslim’s prayer, and a passionate speech about an ancient clay tablet by a naively romantic Scot. “The outlaw days are passing” he says: this land, cradle of civilization, is no longer torn by tyranny but looking for a stable democratic peace…
Ah, if only! This is Iraq, 2003. Rory Stewart (now an MP) was thirty: a Foreign Office drop-out and fascinated Arabist who had walked six thousand miles across the Middle East and Afghanistan. So fuelled by idealism about the reconstruction, he went to Baghdad after the invasion and found himself in charge of Maysan province in the South. He was to organize a democratic council to elect a local governor, himself holding the preposterous title of “Governorate co-ordinator”. But it was all preposterous: how can an unelected foreigner smoothly enforce ‘democracy’, under the protection of British tanks?
Stewart’s memoir of events in his nine months there has been carved with great clarity and drama into a gripping 100-minute play by Stephen Brown and director Simon Godwin. It is riveting, funny, depressing and inspiring by turns: an angry fragment of a history still not played out.
And it is a personal story too. Stewart (played with eerie likeness in speech and intensity by Henry Lloyd-Hughes) addresses us at the start with an apologetic “it is about the confidence of youth”. The overconfidence of the occupying Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad is expressed too, by a breezy John Mackay as Paul Bremer optimistically predicting a “multicultural decentralized democratic state”: Doubling as the Colonel on the spot, Mackay is rather sourer in tone, reluctant to let Stewart even speak to the local Islamist leader Seyyed, whose followers have just murdered six of his men.
He looks with more favour on Seyyed’s more liberal-minded rival, Karim , a Marsh Arab leader and on the face of it more democratically minded and less fanatical. Both rivals fought hard against Saddam, but hate one another with deep sincerity. Stewart must bring them together. And , ideally, not to get them both falling on him with cries of “capitalist imperialist crusader!”, provoking riots in the square and tribalist murders. Even putting the Council together is like getting scorpions to dance a highland reel, or as Stewart says “the table plan for the world’s most awkward wedding”. Every scene has its shocks (and, occasionally, black laughs).
It is played out against a sparse, evocative Paul Wills design of sliding concrete walls, indicating the stern makeshift of a battered land where even getting the electricity and water to work is a fragile triumph. Wonderful performances crackle through it: Silas Carson as Karim, initial dignity blooming dangerously into arrogance, Johndeep More’s stubbornly devout Seyyed, Aiyisha Hart representing the few women who tried to step forward. Abu Rashid, ally of Karim, is Vincent Ebrahim, who doubles as Professor Khaled, an exasperatedly pessimistic non-aligned museum historian of Iraq’s 5000 years. And there is a particularly subtle, touching performance by Nezar Alderazi as Ahmed, trying to assist the impossible process.
It did prove pretty impossible. As the Colonel says, exasperated by Rory’s arrival “You say these people want democracy? They want to be not fucking dead!”. Many more of them were dead before the chaos abated, and what they got was not a multicultural tolerant democracy, but today’s stern brutal Islamism.
But whatever you think of the invasion with hindsight, the Colonel’s last words to Stewart feel right. “Forgive yourself. You should be proud”. Certainly proud of giving us this account, and letting it be staged. An account from a pariticipant, rather than just journalists and polemicists, is useful. And the question echoes in our ears as we leave: what’d we do another time in a collapsing country? “Sit and watch as they blow each other into bonemeal?” Or try to reconstruct?