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Thursday, Jan. 19, 2006

"Stuff Happens" : So what do you think about it?

Special to The Japan Times

The night I got back home from the premiere of "Stuff Happens," the BBC World television news led off with a report on a further mess in Iraq -- the chief judge in the trial of deposed president Saddam Hussein had resigned following criticism of his "soft attitude" toward the defendant. I felt strongly that the play by the Tokyo-based Rinkogun company that I saw a few hours before had not been a historical work, but was about something that is very much still happening in real time in Iraq. The curtain has not fallen yet.

News photo
Tsunekazu Inokuma plays George W. Bush (center) with Sunao Yoshimura as former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell (right) in David Hare's "Stuff Happens"

"Stuff Happens," by English play and film writer David Hare ("Skylight [1995]," "Amy's View" ['97] and "The Blue Room" ['98]), was originally staged at the National Theatre in London in autumn 2004, where it was directed by Nicholas Hytner, the theater's artistic director. The 3-hour play -- now shortened to 2 1/2 hours -- adopts a docudrama style to show a chain of political events surrounding the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, with the cast mostly playing real politicians from the Bush and Blair administrations. The play introduces a massive amount of information about what might have happened between those top world leaders; speculation as to what may have been going on in their minds at that time; excerpts from their speeches; and scenes based on 58-year-old Hare's "investigation."

The audience is jolted to attention at the start when a loud military marching song accompanied by cheering explodes from the barren, darkened stage. Through a big wooden door in the center, the main characters appear in succession: George W. Bush (Tsunekazu Inokuma), Condoleezza Rice (Atsuko Eguchi) and Donald Rumsfeld (Kenjiro Kawanaka), who delivers an extract from the U.S. defense secretary's infamous comments on the 2003 chaos in Baghdad: "Stuff happens . . . and it's untidy, and freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things."

In a series of vignettes characterizing the main players, we hear Rice in an actual interview explain that she likes Brahms' music because it is structured and passionate without being sentimental, and Bush expounding on the greatness of God, thanking Him for making him president so that he no longer needs to explain his motivations, but can simply issue orders and listen to others' progress reports.

In the program, the play's director Yoji Sakate, Rinkogun's 43-year-old founder, explains that although "Stuff Happens" is originally about the post-9/11 world and the Bush administration's America as seen from a dissenting English viewpoint, here it is subjected to a third-party, Japanese view. That makes for a complicated perspective, he concedes, but one that it is important to present.

The audience, whose mass media generally only serve up hygienic soundbites, are offered not only the Bush administration's supposed hidden agenda, but also an insight into Tony Blair (Hideyuki Sugiyama), who is portrayed as an egocentric megalomaniac who is fully responsible for his country's deep involvement in the war. On the other side, former Secretary of State Colin Powell (Sunao Yoshimura, who looks remarkably like the real Powell) expounds on his personal, but impotently held, idea that military action should be used only as a last resort -- and only if there is a clear risk to national security. In like ways, the 13 actors -- some of whom play several different roles -- deliver a huge amount of detail and political debate with a minimum of action.

All fascinating stuff, but as theatrical entertainment in Japan, even with an all-Japanese cast, Sakate is asking a lot of his audience. The veritable deluge of details and the Byzantine complexities of the events are played out by characters whose identities are far better known in the West than they are in Japan, where for many it may be difficult to place them in context.

Despite the difficulty in maintaining the audience's attention for so long, it is clear that Sakate, like Bush and Blair et al, is a man on a mission -- a mission to bring a political awareness to his audience in their own language and live on stage rather through subtitled Western movies such as "Fahrenheit 9/11" or English-language blogs.

This is clear from an interview Sakate gave to Roger Pulvers for the Performing Arts Network Japan in January 2005 ( www.performingarts.jp ), in which he explained: "I do have a moral to the story in a play, I suppose, but that is for the audience to decide on after they have seen the play.

"When playwrights strive to assert some abstract concept in a play, their intentions become all too visible -- they supercede the drama, it all looks too deliberate. My method is to break the whole numbers of drama into factors as much as I can."

To pose questions to his audience face-to-face, and make them think about what he considers the absurdity of what is going on in the world -- that is clearly Sakate's purpose in doing this play. And with the country's leaders complicit in the real-life drama being played out in Iraq, it is for the audience to think, and do, what they will with the ideas handed to them by Sakate.

As I said, the curtain has not fallen yet.

"Stuff Happens" runs till Jan. 25 at the Suzunari Theater, a 5-minute walk from Shimokitazawa Station on the Odakyu and the Keio-Inokashira lines. It then tours Nagoya and Osaka till Feb. 6. For more details call (03) 3426-6294 or visit www.alles.or.jp/~rinkogun/

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