Playwright's satire at West End theater

`Dubya' reflects Briton's frustration at war with Iraq

April 14, 2003|By Alan Cowell | Alan Cowell,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LONDON - In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when Justin Butcher's Madness of George Dubya was playing at a fringe theater in north London, Butcher began to sense that some Americans might bridle at his virulent lampoon of the Bush administration and its readiness to go to war.

But now that Dubya has moved from the fringe into the mainstream West End for a four-week run and has been hailed by some critics here as an overdue revival of political satire on the London stage, Butcher, the writer and the director, wants to take it to U.S. theaters, too. The breakthrough into the West End was a triumph for the 33-year-old.

Dubya - part vaudeville, part farce, part cabaret - has become the newest emblem of the frustration and ambivalence felt by some Britons at being drawn into a war as the principal allies of a U.S. administration that provokes incredulity and resentment rather than loyalty among many of them.

"It's undoubtedly anti-Bush," Butcher said, "but to understand it as an anti-American diatribe is to miss the point." To describe it as topical might be an understatement, too. From its conception to its first production took less than three weeks, he said.

The United States, Butcher said, justified a war on Iraq by "a series of palpable hoaxes" that left him "increasingly flabbergasted by the shameless, manipulative cynicism of the whole approach."

He was so incensed that starting late in December he resolved to cast, write and stage his revue, which opened a little over two weeks later, on Jan. 14, in a fringe theater in north London. It opened in the West End last Monday.

The subtitle of Dubya is Strangelove Revisited, reflecting an affinity to the 1963 Stanley Kubrick movie, Dr. Strangelove. The events are cast as a dream by Dubya, a George W. Bush look-alike wearing paisley pajamas over a Superman T-shirt, clutching a huge teddy bear and armed with toy pistols. Much is made of heavily accented malapropisms - "the war on tourism," "weapons of mass distraction."

Some Americans might be perturbed by the caricatures of their president. This Dubya, who seeks to wage war on "poverty, tyranny, injustice and France," is a childlike character easily manipulated by a ruthless entourage of advisers drawn from the oil and arms industries.

Some of these characters seem to be caricatures of American politicians whose own words have already made them seem like caricatures to some of their critics. "All you have to do is transcribe their utterances, and it needs very little embellishment," Butcher said. "You couldn't invent it."

The British characters, by contrast, are more or less bumblers dragged along in the powerful American wake. For instance, Prime Minister Tony Blear is preoccupied by a real estate deal - a real-life scandal that swirled around Prime Minister Tony Blair's wife, Cherie, late last year.

Wafiq Dizeez, an Arab envoy, introduces a serious long moment in chronicling British and U.S. involvement in Iraq since the early 20th century. The counterpoint is Yasmina, the cleaner from al-Qaida, a suicide bomber who wears a belt of explosives over flimsy underwear beneath her cleaner's housecoat.

Butcher called the show a "hotch-potch of revue, satire, cabaret, stand-up, vaudeville." In a way, it is also news: With events in Iraq moving so fast, the play is updated daily for new jokes.

"Coalition forces have today secured many areas of the city of Belfast," Dubya said during last Monday's performance as President Bush met Blair in Northern Ireland.

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