WAAPA 3rd Year Acting students: Stuff Happens

Roundhouse Theatre

Review: Robert Housley

The ego-driven machinations of government have been on nauseating display in recent days, the result of which is a newly minted Australian Prime Minister. The king is dead, long live the king… until the next self-inflicted beheading.

When this type of behaviour is amplified across the globe and its players are among its most powerful countries, the ramifications for all involved are inordinately more serious. Especially for the losing side.

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WAAPA 3rd Year Acting students in David Hare’s Stuff Happens. Photos Jon Green

English dramatist David Hare’s history play Stuff Happens dives headlong into the cesspit of world politics at its worst: the fiasco preceding the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq by the so-called ‘coalition of the willing’. It is essentially a blow-by-blow account of how the US administration prosecuted its case for the invasion based on the falsehood that Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein had ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and that he might share them with al-Qaeda terrorists. The precursor to this was Al-Qaeda’s brazen and deadly  9/11 attack on US soil using four high-jacked commercial planes.

The play includes an abundance of historical fact – speeches and press conference material, projected photographs – and many fictionalised conversations among the main players.

The dense writing is rich with story, characters and drama, making it a perfect vehicle for WAAPA’s graduate acting students to literally strut their stuff.  And stuff-strutting they did. Not arrogantly but with the confidence they’ll need when shortly they venture in to the real world of cut-and-thrust professional acting.

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And they were impressive. All 17 of them! I half expected a chariot to feature because, as in the classic Ben-Hur analogy, this in mainstage theatre terms is a cast of thousands.  Not that including the entire graduating year was gratuitous. Only a handful of them in the principle roles played a single character; the others had three or more to portray.

This meant that perfecting multiple accents of the global players was the rule rather than the exception. Again, the cast on the whole did admirably with these and necessarily so; poorly realised accents jar and therein undermine the authenticity of performances.

To separate one cast member from another is near impossible in what was a uniformly high performance across the board. But I had a favourite: Jarryd Dobson’s portrayal of US President of the day George W. Bush.  Bush typifies some individuals in public life who appear more caricature than character, much like his current and equally dangerous successor. He is ripe for harvest and Dobson absolutely nails the accent, mannerisms and vocal delivery of this American oddball.

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One of the peculiarities of the casting is that many of the male roles are played by females, notably Shannon Ryan’s impeccable transposition of the English Prime Minister Tony Blair, Lily Stewart’s rendition of irksome US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Jessie Lancaster’s trés elégant, haute couture-attired French Prime Minister Dominque de Villepin. While it was likely undertaken in part for expediency – most of the roles are male but only half the cast are – it was a clever device employed by guesting American director Gregg T. Daniel.

Daniel is a gifted pro who has energised this history play with contemporary vision and an unrelenting vigour. To maintain perpetual motion throughout 160 minutes of text-heavy dialogue is no mean feat and he achieved it with aplomb. This is exemplified during one symbolic Oval Office scene in which Bush converses with UN weapons inspector Hans Blix (Sam Corlett).  Bush pushes his desk – which, like many of the transitional furnishings, is on castors – around the edge of the Roundhouse Theatre’s semi-circular stage, while Blix follows him on foot.  The invasion of Iraq is about to happen and there is no stopping it.

Stuff Happens is a sobering history lesson with no conclusion. More than 100,000 Iraqis and approximately 4,500 US killed soldiers have been killed since the invasion, there are still around 9,000 American troops on the ground and Iraq is a conflict-ridden failed state.

Stuff Happens is performed at the Roundhouse Theatre ECU, 25 – 30 August at 7.30pm.