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Playing anti-war politics

The Madness of George Dubya: good pantomime, shame about the satire.

James Hurrell

Topics Politics

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Justin Butcher’s satirical comedy The Madness of George Dubya is a silly reworking of Dr Strangelove, designed to put a surreal spin on the current Iraqi conflict.

Subtlety is definitely not on the agenda as the teddy-bear hugging, pyjama-clad president and his gangster-like administration expand their ‘war on tourism’ into ‘Iraqistan’ to remove the leader ‘Saddama Bin Laden’. The pantomimic style of the production is surprisingly effective and echoes the absurdity of the war rather well. The jokes are laid on with a trowel (which is good), but hammered home with a mallet (which is patronising).

The play was apparently written in three days, and is re-written for every performance so that it can (in the words of Butcher) ‘keep up with the ever escalating madness of the President’. After going down a storm in a London fringe theatre earlier this year, the play premiered at the Arts Theatre in the West End on 2 April.

The story revolves around a crazed American general issuing an unauthorised nuclear attack on the Middle East. Stringent security rules mean that Britain and America are unable to recall the planes, and while the babyish Bush huddles in his ‘bunkbed’, the inept Tony Blair tries desperately but unsuccessfully to sort the problem out. Joining Bush and Blair is a cast of trigger-happy US generals, bumbling British military officers and a couple of gay redneck fighter pilots.

The play successfully picks up on some of the more absurd aspects of the war on Iraq, with some effective gallows humour. At the start, the audience is asked to leave their phones on, so that they can contact their family in the event of a terrorist attack; the first appearance of a cute Cockney-accented al-Qaeda suicide bomber in a dynamite-decked bikini, who has infiltrated a US military base in Britain by working as a cleaner, is a quirky addition to the plot. As a madcap comedy, it works pretty well.

As a satire, it is less successful. Some of the observations are scathing, but it is neither clever nor subversive enough to be entirely effective. It aims low, throwing in every fashionable anti-war argument from oil to the hawks’ conspiracy to blatant anti-Americanism, without making these arguments any more convincing. At the beginning of the second act, the Iraqi ambassador delivers a long-winded monologue about how the past 100 years of Western intervention have ruined Iraq. Well, yes, but is a history lesson – taken out of all historical context – really appropriate here? When the speech finishes, the suicide bomber applauds, and urges the audience to do the same.

Towards the end of the play, there is an explicit sense of Western self-loathing. The attractive female suicide bomber is portrayed as the epitome of everything that is right and good – as Bush says, in case we missed it, ‘she was one of the good guys’. You have to wonder why Butcher would want his audience to sympathise with the nihilism of a suicide bomber wanting to blow up the Western world – and you have to wonder why many of the audience seemed to go along with it.

On the whole, the ending is muddled. The West is attacked for intervening in the Middle East, but then criticised for not involving itself in the Chechnya question. War is a pretty big problem – is it really necessary to bring up the Kyoto Agreement and fair trade as well? Another case of pushing every politically fashionable button.

There is nothing new or groundbreaking about the play, but despite its drawbacks, it is entertaining. The performances are good, the jokes are funny, and the musical numbers (though not exactly polished) are enjoyably silly. See it, enjoy it, but don’t believe a word of it.

The Madness of George Dubya is playing at the Arts Theatre, 6/7 Great Newport Street, London WC2H 7JA, until 3 May. Call the box office on 020 7836 3334.

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Topics Politics

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