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Sorting through Iraq's "Stuff'

Offstage as well as on, David Hare's Stuff Happens blurs the line between heady drama and headline news.

The play, which opened earlier this month at the National Theatre, features actors playing George W. Bush, Tony Blair and other U.S. and British officials as they pressed for the invasion of Iraq.

Tickets for the two-month run are selling briskly, and the play has already filled acres of newsprint, sparking debates about the relationship between news and art, and newspapers and theaters.

Hare and director Nicholas Hytner refused all interview requests before opening night, so newspapers eager for copy sent commentators to see the play in previews, which irritated the National and outraged some drama critics, who had to wait until Friday's press opening to pass judgment on the show, which runs through Nov. 6.

The left-leaning Guardian newspaper was first three weeks ago, when it sent politicians, columnists, a retired military officer and a former weapons inspector to offer their verdicts. Other newspapers followed, including the conservative Daily Telegraph, whose columnist Vicki Woods declared Stuff Happens to be "not so much a play as a sort of 1960s-style protest-type happening, with a bit of animated history lecture thrown in."

National Theatre spokeswoman Lucinda Morrison said Hytner, also the company's artistic director, had written to the Guardian to complain and that the Critics' Circle, a journalists' group, planned to do the same.

"We absolutely believe in the principle of the press-night embargo, that it is in everyone's interest," Morrison said.

The play's title comes from an April 2003 comment by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in response to looting 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."

It looks at the politicians who decided to wage war on Iraq, offering vignettes _ some based on recorded speeches, some imagined _ of Bush, Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and others.

"Nothing in the narrative is knowingly untrue," Hare wrote in program notes for the play. "When the doors close on the world's leaders and on their entourages, then I have used my imagination."

Stuff Happens is the latest in a string of boldly political dramas to hit London's stages. Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, a docudrama based on evidence from detainees at the U.S. camp for terrorist suspects, transferred from the small Tricycle Theater to the West End in June and opened off-Broadway last month.

Actor Tim Robbins' satire about the war, Embedded, opened at London's Riverside Studios Sept. 9.

Hare, 57, is a longtime chronicler of Britain's moral and political dilemmas _ and an erstwhile supporter of Blair. His one-man 1998 play about the Middle East, Via Dolorosa, was based on interviews with people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Permanent Way, a documentary-style piece about the chaos wrought by the privatization of Britain's railways, was a surprise hit at the National last season.

Hare told the Guardian earlier this year that "there are some subjects where I feel that interpretation _ what I call the thin smear of fiction _ doesn't add anything to the subject."

Some of the play's early viewers disagreed.

Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, who opposed the war, said the play was "gray, very gray. For three long hours it takes us only where we have been before, over and over."

Anne Widdecombe, a conservative lawmaker who supported the war, was more scathing. "I might have said that Stuff Happens is the most blatant subverting of art for the purposes of crude propaganda since that of Leni Riefenstahl," she wrote, "but there is no art involved, no characterization, no coherent plot, no empathy."

But the play had some supporters. Robin Cook, a former foreign secretary who resigned from Blair's government because of his objection to the war, said it "will move anyone who opposed the whole venture."

And Tim Collins, who commanded the 1st battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment in Iraq during the war, judged it a "thought-provoking spectacle, casting new light on the event."