Hampstead Theatre, 20th May 2017
You can learn a lot at the theatre.
Rory Stewart is (actually was, given Parliament is dissolved) a junior minister at the Department of International Development. Apparently he has known the playwright here, Stephen Brown, since they were kids. Mr Stewart sounds like a bloke with a fair amount of derring-do and an admirable compulsion to get stuck in. In September 2003, at the age of 30, and having already walked across vast chunks of near Asia with just the clothes on his back, he blagged his way into the role of a governor of Maysan province in Southern Iraq post the “liberation”. I am guessing that being a scion of Scottish aristocracy, child of a diplomat, Eton, Oxford PPE, tutor to the royal princes and the Diplomatic Service may have helped get the job, but he might just have got lucky (or unlucky as it turns out).
This play dramatises the book he wrote about his experiences. I haven’t read it but I am guessing there is a healthy dose of self-aggrandisement at work. No matter. The question is does this make a good play. After some initial misgivings I have to say it does. It is, unsurprisingly, event driven. There isn’t a lot of exploration of Mr Stewart’s character and motivation (or indeed of the other protagonists), he is the referee between the various parties, and the device of his explaining events direct to the audience only serves to heighten this impression. The play doesn’t go in for dramatic expositions of opposing views or for exploration of historical and geographical context. It gets on with it. Much like Mr Stewart himself did I suspect.
What this approach does mean is that the shifting nature of the struggle for political control post the liberation, and through the attempts to rebuild the province, are very well described. It is confusing at first but gradually the characters and the issues shift into focus which I guess deliberately mirrors the confusion rife in those few months. It certainly points up the multi-faceted consequences that arose from the failure to plan for government in Iraq after the Baathists were booted out.
I knew nothing of any substance or detail about these events beyond a few headlines and pre-conceptions. Now I know more. And this was delivered by a fine cast, led by Henry Lloyd-Hughes as Rory Stewart, and director Simon Godwin in a dynamic, thoughtful and eloquent way. Given the subject and the subject matter it might be easy for others to criticise this. I will not. The run is nearly over but if the subject matter holds any interest, and it probably should, I would genuinely recommend this and think there is a place for more of the same.