Fascinating but fleeting encounter with a latter-day T E Lawrence - Occupational Hazards review
“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” Hard not to think of that line from Shelley’s Ozymandias when contemplating Occupational Hazards, an account of being parachuted into one of the toughest jobs in the world – running the province of Maysan (roughly the size of Northern Ireland) in newly liberated Iraq in 2003.
Rory Stewart – the ex-Etonian Tory MP, current Minister of State for International Development and noted hardy traveller in antique lands (he walked across Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11) – faced that Herculean task aged only 30. He brought charm, dedication and sangfroid to the perilous role, but to little avail. Within eight months of his arrival, the situation had degenerated into violent chaos, thanks to the insurrection under the Shia Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
In its favour, Stephen Brown’s adaptation of Stewart’s 2006 memoir – as directed by Simon Godwin – gives you a sense of how events unfolded, rapidly and mutinously, on the ground: fluorescent lights flicker, suggestive of the kaput power-supply that helped kibosh the mission, while sandy-coloured segments of wall shunt this way and that as one hasty decision treads upon another’s heels. And yet, with the whole episode done and dusted in under two hours, sans interval, there’s barely time to get acquainted with our latter-day Lawrentian hero, the myriad other dramatis personae and the complex subject-matter, before it’s off to the bar.
Given that the book contains much more detail and that Iraq remains a smouldering issue of pressing concern, it feels almost flip to be so brisk. In general, Brown tilts too much towards the lightly entertaining, as if overly afraid of boring us; the attendant, often antagonistic swirl of Iraqis risks appearing decorative, their belligerence, indignation and despair so much sting-less buzzing.
Although it may court charges of Anglo-centrism, the evening works best in its holding up of a mirror to western vanities and pieties. Arch American diplomat (and head of the Coalition Provisional Authority) Paul Bremer (John Mackay) glides on, grandstanding about “a multi-ethnic, decentralised, prosperous state” – hollow, haunted laughs at that. As played by Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Stewart is the opposite of gung-ho imperialism. He looks boyish and, surrounded by insistently manly men, for a while that incongruity works in his favour – he disarms by being unthreatening, uses words as his prime weapon in his stirring advocacy of the rule of law, miraculously achieves a brief accord between a leading former resistance fighter and Marsh Arab figurehead (Silas Carson’s Karim Mahood) and the implacable Sadrists (led by Johndeep More’s turbaned Seyyed Hassan).
Yet he’s deaf to entreaties that he gets tough. “This is a country where a ruler pretends to have weapons he does not have,” wisely advises Vincent Ebrahim’s Khaled, a history teacher who sees the past more as engulfing sand-storm than pathway to enlightenment, urging him to play the strong-man. He doesn’t – or didn’t, or couldn’t, and the situation deteriorated. Which begs the question: did this good egg make a dog’s dinner of an exercise in nation-building even worse?
Until June 3. Tickets: 020 7722 9301; hampsteadtheatre.com
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