Occupational Hazards at Hampstead Theatre
What was that “politics or theatre?” asks Ahmed. In a burst of theatrical energy Occupational Hazards poses questions about the nature of democracy and the consequences of British and American interference in Iraq. It is a subject matter perfect for dramatic effect and Ahmed’s question resonates throughout. From his experiences, British politician Rory Stewart wrote a book – was he interested in creating theatre or democracy? – and in less than two hours, with no interval, the play pivots on these experiences. We rush towards a climax of resolution that becomes darker and by the end theatre-goers do not feel content or secure; instead the world and the part we have played in changing it seems to blur into darkness.
Stewart – a 30-year-old Tory MP – addresses us, his constituents. He takes us back in time to 2003, when he volunteered his services to the chief of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, and was commissioned to go to the south to Maysan and help create a “modern, secular Iraq”. Charged terms reappear – “lies and empty promises”, “chaos” – as if we are directed to scrutinise our own democratic system. Stewart is not above the power politics that threaten to rupture Maysan as he screams “I am the senior man here”. The sense of imminent danger and the courage, or perhaps arrogance, of the diplomat is stressed, as is the failure of democracy to offer instant happiness – it is a system in which “everyone is equally unhappy”.
Set changes are fast and add to the atmosphere of unease. On to the stone wall at the beginning is projected “think not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country”, an ironic reiteration of the influence Britain had over Iraq and the uprising. Music, strobes and a set that breaks apart generate a feeling of fragmented understanding. The acting is impressive, particularly from Johndeep More, Aiysha Hart and Henry Lloyd-Hughes as Stewart. While the production could have been longer, the only reason for this would be to create more clarity; as it stands the play uses the time limitations of theatre to enact the limits of what could be done in Iraq. Occupational Hazards may seem to ask too many questions but it effectively undermines any binary analysis of what was and still is a complex situation. It is always better to pose questions rather than impose answers.
Photo: Marc Brenner
Occupational Hazards is at Hampstead Theatre from 28th April 2017 until 3rd June 2017 for further information or to book visit here.
Watch the cast and creatives talk about Occupational Hazards here: