The guilty conscience of the West: Iraq and the art of war

Artists may have been slow to respond to the international crisis, but they are making their voices heard now. Louise Jury reports on how they are rising to the challenge
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At Stratford-upon-Avon last night, the Royal Shakespeare Company presented Much Ado About Nothing updated as a commentary on the war in Iraq.

A day earlier, Tate Britain unveiled a new commission for its central galleries from the artist Mark Wallinger, in which he painstakingly recreated the giant barricade of protest that challenged the law-makers of Westminster until police used new powers to tear it down.

And next month, the Manchester International Festival and the Imperial War Museum present another new commission from the Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen, a carefully constructed memorial to the servicemen and women who have died in the conflict.

Although it could be argued that the artistic response to an international crisis which has dominated headlines for years has been slow, it certainly seems to have arrived now. Theatre is leading the way.

The Stratford play, Days of Significance by Roy Williams, comes in the wake of David Hare's analysis of the approach to war, Stuff Happens, and Gregory Burke's acclaimed Black Watch, about the Scottish regiment's experience in Iraq, among others.

Jeanie O'Hare, literary manager of the Royal Shakespeare Company, said playwrights at venues from London's Arcola and Tricycle theatres on the fringe to the National Theatre and the RSC itself had reacted strongly to the war. "They're not just looking at subjects to write about, they're responding to it because it's the most important thing going on in their lifetime, as in Roy's play which is a direct and very open response to the Iraq war," she said.

She has another three works lined up all indirectly connected with the conflict. The large programme of the company means it takes a couple of years for a production to go from initial green light to first night on stage, but it has become clear that the Iraq war is one the biggest issues around. "What's happening in Iraq is reverberating through theatre," she said. "We know that there's something about Iraq we're going to be living with for a very long time. It does feel as if it's what we need to tackle."

The artist Yinka Shonibare, who produced a white flag at half mast to indicate the impossibility of peace, in a commission for the Hayward Gallery, London, has suggested visual artists have not responded as they might to the conflict because the art world is booming, economically.

But Alex Poots, director of the Manchester International Festival, stressed that artists needed time to respond. They have been working with Steve McQueen for two years to create something that was not glib or crass. For Wallinger, it was Brian Haws' marathon anti-war protest at Westminster that led to the giant work unveiled at the Tate this week. He said: "It seemed to me that this country is in a complacent torpor at the moment. At the last election there wasn't a political party to vote for that was against the war in Iraq. Brian seemed to be the last protester with any kind of vigour. He's the guilty conscience of the Palace of Westminster."

Wallinger said it was an issue he felt passionate about but he could see how and why other artists might not tackle such a subject. "Art is just a reflection of the rest of society and there's such a quiescent acceptance of capitalism really. I've been pretty shocked that post-9/11 there hasn't been a great deal of work that addressed that."

Certainly he is not the only person who thinks art should be doing more. The response of many musicians has been oblique rather than direct, reflected in the work of those such as Damon Albarn and his The Good, the Bad and the Queen collaboration.

The veteran rocker Neil Young, produced his Living with War album when he realised the younger generation was not going to rise to the challenge. "I was waiting for someone to come along, some young singer, 18 to 22 years old, to write these songs and stand up," he told an American newspaper. "I waited a long time. Then I decided that maybe the generation that has to do this is still the 1960s generation."

Days of Significance; Roy Williams

Commissioned as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Complete Works Festival and written in response to Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, Days of Significance is about the impact of the Iraq war on young soldiers.

Set in market-town England and the deserts of Iraq, it shows two young soldiers and their friends binge-drinking the night before they leave for active service and how their complex love lives and fears about mortality have a direct impact on their tour of duty. Williams, a young playwright whose previous work Fallout tackled a murder and police inquiry similar to that of Stephen Lawrence, said: "Like others, I am against the war [in Iraq], but I had no interest in writing about the people in power."

The play opened at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, last night and runs until Saturday.

The Good, the Bad and the Queen; Damon Albarn

A collaboration with Paul Simonon, the Clash's former bassist, Simon Tong, the ex-Verve guitarist, and Tony Allen, the Fela Kuti drummer. Although the main theme is England and Englishness, the constant backdrop of war in lyrics such as "Drink all day coz the country is at war" in the song "Kingdom of Doom" contributes to the melancholy air.

Black Watch; Gregory Burke

The hit production of last year's Edinburgh Festival, now eagerly awaited in London, was devised by the Scottish playwright from interviews he conducted with former soldiers who had served in Iraq. Hurtling from a pool-room in Fife to an armoured wagon in Iraq, the play views the war on terror from the eyes of those on the ground. It was the first major hit of the newly formed National Theatre of Scotland.

War; Harold Pinter

The Nobel laureate won the Wilfred Owen Prize for this collection of anti-war poems plus a single speech.

Michael Grayer, chairman of the Wilfred Owen Association, which celebrates the achievements of the First World War poet and makes the award, said of the works in the starkly titled 'War': "As one might expect, all are hard-hittingand uncompromising, written with lucidity, clarity and economy."

A fierce opponent of war, Pinter spoke at the major anti-war rally in London and addressed MPs at Westminster on the subject.

Queen and Country; Steve McQueen

The Imperial War Museum appointed McQueen as its official war artist to respond to the conflict in Iraq in 2003, but he found many difficulties in completing the commission because of the deteriorating security situation in Iraq. This work is a result of his memories of the young soldiers he met there.

The new work, which will be unveiled at the Manchester Central Library on 28 February and runs until 15 July, is a "facsimile" of a commemorative edition of stamps, each bearing a portrait of a soldier killed in the conflict.

Shoot the Dog; George Michael

The former Wham! star's single was deemed such a vituperative attack on America over the Iraq war that he ended up selling his home in the States and returning to live in the UK.

Admittedly many were scathing of a song which seemed to suggest that matters would improve if Cherie got the Prime Minister stoned but he was movingly defended by Woody Harrelson, the Hollywood actor, who called him "brave and brilliant".

State Britain; Mark Wallinger

The former Turner Prize nominee has recreated the barricade once manned by the peace campaigner Brian Haw outside the Palace of Westminster. By the time the police moved in to dismantle the peace camp, it consisted of more than 600 weather-beaten banners, photographs, peace flags and messages of goodwill.

All were photographed by Wallinger who has reconstructed the protest in the central Duveen Galleries of Tate Britain. It is on show until 27 August.

Stuff Happensx; David Hare

With a title taken from Donald Rumsfeld's response to the looting of Baghdad, this 2004 National Theatre production followed the process that led to the invasion of Iraq.

Hare, the left-wing playwright whose work includes Via Dolorosa, a monologue about the Arab-Israeli conflict, fashioned a human drama as well as a historical narrative that grabbed headlines. Alex Jennings played George Bush and Nicholas Farrell was Tony Blair.