Dinner with Saddam, Horowitz’s comedic look at Iraq

Friday 25/09/2015
Shobu Kapoor (Samira Alawai), Sanjeev Bhaskar (Ahmed Alawai) & Steven Berkoff (Saddam Hussein), Back: Zed Josef & Bally Gill (Soldiers). (Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore)

London - Dinner with Saddam re­volves around what happens when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hus­sein, played by Steven Berkoff from War and Remem­brance and The Girl with the Drag­on Tattoo, turns up unannounced for dinner at Ahmed’s house just as the US “shock-and-awe” bomb­ing campaign begins in 2003.
Fearing assassination and US air strikes, Saddam was known to drop in uninvited on ordinary peo­ple’s houses.
He would reward his hosts for their hospitality but anything meeting Saddam’s disapproval could also meet death.
Personal and political issues are on the menu as Ahmed, played by Sanjeev Bhaskar from TV com­edies Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No.42, and his fam­ily carefully watch their words and actions. Saddam orders a guard shot for yawning, an example of his often random brutality.
“I cannot see any way to write about the horror of Iraq except through comedy,” playwright An­thony Horowitz wrote in the Spec­tator magazine in July 2014.
Given the violence of the insur­gency against the US-led occupa­tion after Saddam’s overthrow in 2003 and the horrors of sectarian war that have followed, some Ira­qis feel a degree of nostalgia for the order ruthlessly imposed by the dictator and his henchmen.
“Of course he was one of the most evil people who has ever walked this Earth,” said Horowitz. But “at the end of the day, he was a human being and human beings do horrible things and do good things. I don’t believe that he was 100% bad… We have the habit of making absolute monsters of any­body we don’t agree with,” he told an audience at the Hay Festival in 2014.
Horowitz has said that former British prime minister Tony Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003 had “besmirched democracy and politics” and that he had “a smid­gen of sympathy” for Saddam.
While Saddam’s forces dropped chemical weapons on his own citi­zens, most famously on the Kurd­ish town of Halabja in 1988, it was a crime under his rule not to send your son or daughter to school af­ter the age of 6, education was free for everyone, male or female, all the way to university and scholar­ships were given to thousands to study abroad.
In the play, Rana, Ahmed’s daughter, is studying medicine and is an activist having an affair with a plumber. When Saddam is told that she is to marry Jamal, a fat traffic warden, he says, “But she does not love him.” Under Saddam’s regime, women were al­lowed to choose whom they mar­ried. Jamal talks with pride about Iraq’s infrastructure developed under Saddam when water and electricity were available in every city and village and at least one health clinic was built in every vil­lage.
Dams, roads and bridges were constructed and Iraq started mak­ing its own radios, televisions, heaters and air conditioners.
But Jamal is also a hypocrite who extorts people, accepting bribes, instead of issuing them ticket fines. He symbolises the endemic corruption of officials during the Saddam era.
In the play Saddam makes a speech about some of his achieve­ments: Nationalisation of the oil industry strengthened the econo­my as oil production tripled. Farm­ers were given land, loans, mod­ern machinery, discounted seeds and other resources necessary to overcome uncultivable land. Loans with minimal interest were provided for the middle class and professionals.
A compelling performance full of chaos and comedy, Dinner with Saddam will be performed through November 14th at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, Lon­don.